I was watching the game where Ryan Shazier was injured. It was Monday Night Football, Bengals versus Steelers, and I was ready for the first good non-Sunday football game in weeks. Then, less than four minutes into the first quarter, Shazier dove in for a tackle and went down. It was immediately apparent that something was wrong. Normally, when someone bounces off a tackle, they will roll away and then push themselves up. But not Shazier. Instead, his legs just stopped. As he lay on his side in the middle of the field, he grabbed at the small of his back, and that’s when it became abundantly clear that his season, if not his career, was over. Fast forward a few days, and the news came out that Shazier was in surgery to stabilize a severe spinal injury.
After that, Shazier became the Steelers’, and the NFL’s, mascot. He was in the top box during the divisional playoff round, sending out selfie videos discussing his determination to recover while Steelers fans waved their “Shalieve” rally towels in response. It culminated at the NFL draft when Shazier hobbled his way to the podium to announce the Steelers’ pick in a truly amazing and memorable moment. When the injury happened, it seemed as though he would never walk again, but here he was, just a few months later, walking out under his own power. The NFL put up at least twenty different Instagram and Facebook videos celebrating Ryan Shazier, football hero.
However, underneath the NFL and the Steelers celebrating Shazier, the real issue persists: The whole reason Shazier can barely walk is because of football.
The play wasn’t something crazy. It wasn’t a penalty or a bending of the rules; nobody hit him with malicious intent. In all likelihood, it was a tackle that Shazier had made thousands of times since he first put on pads. In other words, it was another reminder of the dangers of football.
Concussions have dominated NFL headlines for the past few years, and rightly so. The revelations around chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and the NFL’s resistance to adapting safety measures have led to the endangerment of hundreds of its own players, and thousands more across the country in high school and college programs. In response, many are pushing for rule changes and updated helmet technology. These changes should be implemented, but no helmet or new rule could have protected Shazier.
The reality of Shazier’s injury is one that many football fans, myself included, don’t want to face. It is the reality that, no matter how hard we try, football is a fundamentally dangerous game. Whether it be concussions or spine injuries, football will never be safe, and that leads to some pretty serious questions about whether the game should continue.
Why was I interested in watching the Bengals and Steelers? The Bengals were terrible last year, and I hate the Steelers. Sure, I had players on both teams for Fantasy Football, but the reason I was looking forward to watching the game was because there is no other rivalry in sports where I can feel confident that someone will be leaving the field on a stretcher. It may be a product of the coaches, the players or the history, but Bengals versus Steelers is always hard hitting, violent, and exciting. Even after Shazier went out, which was a terrifying moment, Steelers wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster slammed the crown of his helmet into Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict’s head. Burfict was concussed and carted out after Smith-Schuster had stood over him, posturing to make sure everyone knew what he had done.
But that isn’t okay. Football is America’s response to the gladiators. It is the perfect mix of athleticism, strategy, and violence. The Super Bowl pulls in so many viewers for a reason, but things are changing. The evidence of the sport’s danger is plain to see, and we, as football fans and as human beings, will have to confront those dangers soon. Maybe that will mean safety regulations, new tech, or the end of the sport as a whole, but we will eventually have to recognize that Ryan Shazier isn’t a hero; he’s a casualty.