You can love football and hate what happened Monday night in Cincinnati.
You can tune in for bone-crushing tackles. You can stand up and cheer when a running back trucks a linebacker. And, yes, you can still be repulsed by two plays that will hover over this game — and perhaps the NFL — for weeks and months to come.
This is not the time to argue, stubbornly and with fleeting merit, that football must be accepted as an uncontrollably vicious and unavoidably violent game. Indeed, it once was. But it can no longer be, at least not in the context we’re accustomed to. We know too much now about the long-term impact of brain injuries to simply tolerate the unconscionably directed hits that Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict and Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown absorbed in the fourth quarter of the Steelers’ 23-20 victory.
Burfict left the field on a stretcher to be evaluated for a concussion, the victim of Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster’s illegal block. Less than four minutes later, Bengals safety George Iloka drilled Brown’s face mask after a game-tying touchdown. The plays came amid the pall of a frightening first-quarter injury suffered by Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier, who was taken to a local hospital because of a back injury.
The Shazier injury happened innocently enough, after he lowered his head to make a routine tackle. To be fair, most of Monday night’s game was played within reasonable boundaries of roughness. These teams have a long and heated rivalry, flush with a history of legal and illegal hits in recent years. That’s almost certainly why Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, when asked about the viciousness of the game, blew it off as “AFC North football.”
But that just can’t be, not anymore, not if you recognize the way the wind is blowing with this sport and game. I spoke this summer with Dr. Bennett Omalu, who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) by identifying it in the brains of deceased NFL players. In his opinion and the opinions of many other medical professionals, the science of repeated brain injuries is settled.
“There is no such thing as a safe blow to the head,” he said. “And then when you have repeated blows to your head, it increases the risk of permanent brain damage. Once you start having hundreds or thousands of blows, there is a 100 percent risk of exposure to permanent brain damage. The brain does not have a reasonable capacity to regenerate. This is something we have always known.”
In other words, if you play football long enough, you’re going to be exposed to permanent brain damage. That doesn’t necessarily mean everyone will fall victim, of course. But if you think that focus on brain health in football is a fad or a passing concern or anything other than central to the future of the game, then you haven’t been paying attention lately. This isn’t going away. At some point, a moral reckoning will arise among fans — if it hasn’t already — who no longer feel entertained by watching players bashing in each other’s brains.
Even the NFL has accepted a reality in which it must at least attempt to minimize head trauma, be it subconcussive hits on a daily basis or clinical concussions in games. That acceptance has manifested itself in a set of rules that Smith-Schuster and Iloka blew through Monday night.
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Both were well within their rights to initiate a high degree of contact. Smith-Schuster was trying to block a much larger man from tackling a teammate, while Iloka was trying to break up a touchdown reception. But whether by intent or simple lack of control, both players hit their opponents in the head.
When you combine their hits with the cheap shot for which New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was suspended one game on Monday, you realize that the NFL still has work to do to convince players to respect what must be a red line for avoidable contact to the head. The ask is simple: Do everything you can to minimize head shots. That alone won’t solve the issue, but it should be a minimum for any serious attempt to make the game safer for the brain.
That might be something players can handle among themselves over time. “We need to take ownership,” Bengals receiver A.J. Green told reporters. “We need to take care of each other.”
Maybe the NFL will assert itself to a greater extent. It’s possible that Smith-Schuster and/or Iloka will meet Gronkowski’s fate and face a suspension. But the point will not be to water down the game or take away someone’s manhood or earn credit by clutching pearls. It will be to preserve the vast majority of a game that many people love, at the expense of a level of savagery from which we can all stand to evolve.