During the first quarter of a Monday Night Football game last December, the Cincinnati Bengals were driving against their rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers. On a 2nd and 5 inside the Steelers’ half, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton threw a short pass to Josh Malone. Looking to stop the wideout short of a first down, Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier lunged with his head down to make a play.
What happened next was horrifying: Shazier knocked Malone backwards and fell to the ground. On the ground, Shazier reached around and immediately pointed to his lower back. Shazier rolled over onto his back waving his arm to grab the attention of his teammate. Players on the field soon noticed Shazier on the ground with his arms pointed upwards, and suddenly it became obvious: Ryan Shazier couldn’t move his legs.
Team doctors rushed onto the field, placed Shazier on a board, and carried him away. Lack of knowledge and replays drove the fear of his injury to greater heights; on the ESPN broadcast while Shazier was being carried off, commentator Sean McDonough said, “Not to be an alarmist, Jon, but I don’t think anybody has seen his legs move at all since the hit.”
McDonough was right — Shazier suffered a gruesome spine injury and was temporarily paralyzed from the legs down.
Two days later, Shazier underwent successful spinal stabilization surgery. Two months after surgery and months of tireless rehabilitation, Shazier was cleared to leave the hospital on outpatient care.
Last week, Shazier was back in the headlines. On a podcast with teammate Roosevelt Nix, he said, “I’ve gotta get back. … I’m giving my football effort a thousand,” hinting that a return to football was on the horizon. Shazier even openly discussed his goals and plans to reach the Pro Football Hall of Fame. This comment has been met with much controversy, and has also stoked the ever-burning debate over the long-term viability of football as a sport.
Now, let me make a disclaimer: I am in no way a football expert. I have never played tackle football. I don’t truly understand the physicality of the sport and the true damage the sport can have on athletes’ bodies, short term or long term.
I understand Shazier’s sentiment; as an athlete who has endured season-ending injuries, I completely empathize with the struggles of the recovery process and the desire to work every single minute to return.
However, no matter what Shazier may be feeling, this decision just doesn’t make sense.
Shazier’s determination and work ethic are admirable, but the possibility of reinjury from simply practicing is risky enough to never put pads on again. In 2016, the Sports Health medical journal published a scholarly article titled “Return-to-Play Recommendations After Cervical, Thoracic, and Lumbar Spine Injuries.” The article created an outline for the clinical guidelines for athletes who hope to return after a spine injury like Shazier’s, but it’s based entirely on medical theory, not case studies. In short, this type of recovery has never really been tried before.
Shazier has made it clear his decision to return to football isn’t for greater wealth or celebrity — it’s for personal goals, which he’s probably had since childhood. I understand those are the hardest to give up.
However, a return to the NFL is simply not worth the risk Shazier would be taking. He narrowly escaped paralysis last time — one more tackle could mean much more than the end of his career.
While Shazier’s situation is interesting on an individual basis, it serves as the latest example of a much bigger issue — the question of the long-term safety of America’s most popular sport.
We silently celebrate the brutality of football. Entertained by the herculean efforts of men risking their future health to reach another yard or make a tackle, the strength and jaw-dropping plays continue to draw viewers to the game.
Though many discuss the health and player safety issues and claim that football will one day disappear, it’s not like the danger really scares us from watching football again. After Shazier’s gruesome injury, most of us watched the following week’s games, and even more watched the Super Bowl.
Preventative measures have been taken at the younger age levels to try to prevent incidents like Shazier’s, but if we want to watch, enjoy, or play football, we can’t deny its inherent violence. As long as football exists, there will be terrible injuries, and if we want to truly prevent these horrific events from occurring, there is no other solution but to stop watching, praising and playing “America’s Game,” no matter how much we love the sport.