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An Introspective Look At Injuries And The NFL

Are we all bad people for loving football? How difficult is the NFL's decision-making on safety rules? Brian Cushing's injury prompted a long internal conversation about why we love football and what the future may hold.

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Jamie Squire

When I saw Brian Cushing writhing in pain and holding his knee on Sunday, I went through my own modified stages of grief in about 30 seconds:

  1. Anger
  2. Homebrew
  3. Anger
  4. Homebrew
  5. WTF happened to this season?

#5, by the way, is about as close to acceptance as I'm going to get, so I consider the cycle complete.

By the time word spread that his season was over, I was, shall we say, less than shocked. There was no doubt in my mind that this would be the case. First off, Cushing is a bad dude, so when he seems to be in that much pain, you know it can't be good. Second, the look on his face when he was sitting on the back of that cart kind of said it all. Third, the way this season has gone, was there ever any doubt? If I were Bob McNair, I would seriously consider cryogenically freezing J.J. Watt and Andre Johnson until next summer. (Though admittedly, you'd have to trick Watt. Tell him there's a QB in the freezing chamber or something.)

My first reaction to the injury was to be pissed at Jamaal Charles for his low block. At that point, if Jamaal Charles had been sitting in my living room, I would have beat the crap out of him*. After only two sips of homebrew, however (on Sundays, I measure time in "sips of homebrew"), I quickly realized that there was nothing wrong with the block. It's a perfectly legal block that we see a hundred times every week. Whether it should be is a matter of debate, but I do not believe there was any malice intended.

*Note: Obviously, if a real life Jamaal Charles were sitting in my living room, my actual reaction would be to offer him a beer, call my friends over for pictures, ask for his autograph, and hope he doesn't read BRB. If it's all the same to you, though, I'd like to indulge my tough-guy online persona for a few minutes.

After progressing through my stages of grief, however, I found that something was still bothering me. That something was the fact that just one play earlier D.J. Swearinger was flagged for a far less dangerous hit on Alex Smith. I understand that Swearinger's hit was in the head-ish area, and I understand that head injuries are worse than knee injuries.

Still, something continued to bother me. Finally, I figured it out. It was Jared Crick's penalty in the first quarter. Crick got flagged for hitting Alex Smith low, which resulted in a personal foul.

So, what's the difference between Crick's penalty and Cushing's injury?

Now my frustration shifted from Charles to the NFL. Why can't there be some element of consistency in the rule book? I've already stated that I believe that Charles' intentions were completely innocent, and I'd have to say that Crick's were just as innocent, if not moreso (I quickly deleted the game from my DVR, so I can't confirm; if memory serves me right, I think Crick might have even been blocked into Smith).

Now, I'm not going to pretend like I discovered America here and am the first person to highlight the inconsistencies with the NFL's safety rules, but I do find it an interesting discussion nonetheless.

Let's say, for example, you're on the NFL's safety committee. You see the Cushing hit and have to decide whether to make that type of block illegal. If my evaluation is correct, the thought process you are likely to use goes something like this:

  • Was the injured player a quarterback for an east coast team?
  • Was the injured player an otherwise famous player from an east coast team?
  • Was the injured player injured in a prime-time game that a lot of people might have seen?
  • Will ESPN otherwise care that this player was injured?
  • And finally... was the injury the result of a headshot (though I believe in the NFL, this one might be written in crayon with a backwards "e")?

All joking aside, I think the NFL is in a really tough position here, so I tried to see things from their perspective. They are trying to balance the public perception of their product against sustainability of their sport. They really want to portray the perception of player safety, but I honestly don't believe that there is all that much consideration given to the actual health of the players involved, and I don't necessarily say that with my "NFL is evil" voice (everybody has one of those, right?).

I think that for the most part, players would prefer to accept the risks involved and to not be regulated so much. Richard Sherman states this pretty clearly in this SI article. Whether other players feel the same is uncertain; I suspect that they do.

So, what's an NFL to do?

I mentioned that the NFL is in a tough position, and it really is. I mean, the entire idea of football is this kind of modern day gladiatorial event. The premise of football is based around violence and the possibility of injury. We love to see our players rise above, and to cheer them when they conquer the physicality of the sport. Look no further than the bloody image of J.J. Watt from a few weeks ago, and how we all marveled at his toughness and strength.

Sure, there's an element of beauty in watching Peyton Manning break down a defense or watching Arian Foster make a cut so hard that the defender's entire sock drawer catches fire. Sure, there's the element of camaraderie that being a fan of a team brings. But none of that is the primary reason people watch. You wouldn't lose any of it if tackle football became flag football, but I guarantee you that the game would lose its place atop the pantheon of American sports.

No, football feeds our primal thirst for violence first. All the other stuff second.

We also live in a world where we like to believe we're civilized enough that we no longer have that primal thirst for violence. We live in a world where social media allows us to immediately pass judgment on the morals of others, and demand that those whom we have passed judgment on address the concerns of the mob.

I should really step aside here and say that I'm not trying to pass my own judgment on those who criticize the NFL. I know it may sound that way, but that is not my intention. My intention is really to try and look at the situation through the eyes of the NFL.

The NFL is a multi-billion dollar organization that wants to remain a multi-billion dollar organization. That may sound like greed, and maybe it is, but I doubt anyone reading this would feel otherwise if they were in the same position.

The NFL also is well aware of the need for violence in their sport, and must therefore find their way along a spectrum ranging from maximizing violence and ignoring the side effects (political, and likely legal, suicide) to eliminating violence and maximizing safety (financial suicide). They must do so while also managing the profitability versus social awareness spectrum. This is not an easy road.

They have chosen to try and find a path that balances these items, and it's nearly impossible to walk that path without inconsistencies in the enforcement of the rules. Follow the path for a while, and we find that the end result is that Alex Smith's knee is more valuable than Brian Cushing's knee. That's not a very PC statement, is it? And so the criticism continues.

Some say that this will ultimately kill the NFL and that it won't even exist in 10 years. I don't really buy that. Well, not totally. It takes more than a few chips to knock down the mountain. The NFL is entrenched and powerful, and it will take far longer than 10 years to really have an impact.

The rules will continue to change, and some will leave. The game will become different. In the end, they'll still play, and we'll still watch.

No, I think the real impact here won't be felt for another 20-30 years, and it will likely live on much longer than that. In the end, I think the people of my generation will be the ones to start the decline, but it will be my children or grandchildren who host the funeral.

When my wife and I first got married and children were just something that we talked about between meals, she asked me once whether I would let our kids play football. My answer was a resounding YES! Why wouldn't I? I love football, I knew they would love football, and I remember how resentful I was when my parents wouldn't let me play (they were ahead of their time).

Then a weird thing happened. The idea of children went from an abstract concept to reality. And while I have two girls that are unlikely to play football (not being sexist here... just honest), even if they did, my answer would probably be "no".

When I see people get hurt now, one thought that always goes through my head is, "What if that were my girl?" You can't protect your children from everything, nor do you want to. A certain level of risk, pain, and injury is essential to growing up. But you can try to teach and position them to where the risks that they take will be beneficial rather than needless.

There's still a full generation of youngsters waiting to fill the NFL ranks, rule inconsistencies notwithstanding. As generations go by, I believe that population will dwindle. The NFL is desperately trying to hold on to that future with its efforts to support youth football with proper technique, all while trying to protect its investment. Still, I fear that as each injury and long-term health issue gets more and more publicity, that won't be enough.

Random note that has nothing to do with anything: I wonder if similar discussions were being held in ancient Rome about the original gladiators on the scroll equivalent of blogs?

At the end of the day, the more I thought about this (and the more I let the homebrew wear off), I realized that my discomfort with the inconsistencies of the NFL rule book simply highlighted inconsistencies with my own view of football.

Do I want the game to be safe, or do I want the game to remain as I've known it? I simply can't have both.

Taking one of the extreme positions is definitely the simpler approach. I suspect that most of us would prefer to see if we can find that path that the NFL so desperately hope exists.

Maybe it does, and maybe the future of football includes game that still fulfills our primitive need to embrace the brutality without actually damaging lives. I'm dubious.

If I'm being honest with myself, I know that I'll continue to watch and support the game. I'll comfort myself with the belief that the men that play do so with a complete understanding and acceptance of the risks involved (at least I hope they do). I think we all would like to take the high road, but that conflicts with what we really want.

Is that right? I don't know. I'm not ready to give it up yet. Maybe that makes me a terrible person.

Before I criticize the NFL for being inconsistent, though, I will try to remember that my own views are conflicting, so perhaps I should lay off them a bit.

Unless the Texans are playing, in which case, screw logic and pass the homebrew.