Football and ultraviolence

From the beginning of the season, it was clear that NFL defenders had a strategy to stop Robert Griffin III: Hurt him. You could see it in the high tackles and the torpedo shots and the way Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata just sort of happened to hit Griffin right in the knee Dec. 9, damaging it and starting the spiral that ended with Griffin on a surgical table this week.

By the time Ngata got him, Griffin already had suffered a concussion and several hits earlier in the season that were brutal enough to make me look away. And in his last game this season — which, let’s be honest, might be his last game as a starting NFL quarterback — he took a couple of more shots before his knee twisted sickeningly as he reached for a low snap. He collapsed in a heap and you could feel the pain right through the television screen.

A lot of people have reacted with a sort of this-is-life-in-the-NFL shrug. I want to know why.

Football has always been a violent and somewhat dangerous sport, but players have become so much bigger, faster and stronger in recent years that the violence factor has ramped out of any sense of control. I now wonder whether this is really a sport at all, or simply a form of brutal ultraviolence all prettied up with a bunch of rules.

Watch football for any length of time and it’s clear that some players specialize in hits designed to maximize pain and physical damage. These hits often aren’t very good ways to tackle a player — you see defenders miss these shots all the time when a simple wrap-and-tackle would have ended a play — but they look fabulous on SportsCenter when they work. And if you miss a running back three times, but knock him out of the game on the fourth, haven’t you essentially helped your team?

That’s the conundrum at the center of football. Play it long enough, especially as a pro, and you’re probably going to be injured by an opponent’s violent shot — or by the way you have applied violence to others. Those injuries might seem to heal, but they’re often of the orthopedic or brain sort that will haunt you in the decades to come.

In the last few days, I’ve seen Earl Campbell — probably the greatest college running back I ever saw — hobbling around in a walker before an NFL game. He’s in his 50s and has worked his way out of a wheelchair in recent months, but he’s a shell of the great man I once saw. Advanced arthritis in his back and joints is to blame. And there’s a new report that Junior Seau — one of the best NFL defenders I ever witnessed — suffered from degenerative brain disease before committing suicide. That’s becoming a shockingly common occurrence.

And then there’s RGIII, whose future depends as much on his legs as his arm. 

I’ve seen many more terrible football injuries than the one RGIII suffered Sunday. Heck, RGIII’s leg woes pale in comparison to the sickening leg-break ex-Redskins QB Joe Thiesmann suffered at the hands of Lawrence Taylor back in 1985, and knee blowouts happen in less-violent sports all of the time. But for whatever reason, this injury seems to be the one that has tipped my ability to tolerably watch football and pretend it’s all just a game.

Things can’t continue in this manner. The toll is just too high.



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