Football is violent, but the public’s disgust with the damage caused by America’s most popular game might finally have reached a critical point this season. The sport is killing itself, and the most powerful arbiter of its practice, the NFL, might just let that death happen by not taking care of its players.
Football’s high potential for injury is obvious whenever it’s played, but a particularly egregious moment of official malpractice came during the Houston Texans-San Francisco 49ers matchup on Sunday, which drew fresh rounds of criticism, for good reason.
Texans quarterback Tom Savage took a hit hit after delivering a pass from his own endzone and was knocked to the ground by 49ers defensive end Elvis Dumervil, a fairly routine play. Something was visibly wrong with Savage afterward, however, and it was a moment that should give all viewers pause.
The Texans QB visibly quivered and twitched on the ground as an official stood over him (since we don’t have any information from the Texans medical staff, let’s refrain from calling this a seizure). Savage was taken out of the game for a medical evaluation, as is dictated by the NFL’s Concussion Diagnosis and Management Protocol after such a big hit — but he returned to the field of play just a few minutes later.
Savage’s return sparked fury among observers on Twitter, and rightly so.
Disgusted that the @HoustonTexans allowed Tom Savage to return to the game after 2 plays after showing these horrifying #concussion signs (is that a seizure?) after a head impact. I would not let my worst enemy go through the 2017 #NFL sideline concussion protocol… https://t.co/PeJr5ISAIJ
— Chris Nowinski, Ph.D. (@ChrisNowinski1) December 10, 2017
Most of the ire comes because of Savage’s reactions to the play, which clearly gel with concussion symptoms listed by the league in its protocol. Those involuntary movements should have been noted by the two athletic trainers, or “Booth ATC Spotters,” who observe video replays of every game in real time. The video review is necessary in case the physicians on the field miss out on key details during the speed and commotion of a post-play injury, lest they allow a seemingly-lucid-but-actually-concussed player back in the game — which is exactly what happened with Savage.
The NFL is considering band-aids to solve its problems, when the appropriate response is an emergency surgery.
The quarterback was only back in action for a few more plays before he was replaced by T.J. Yates and, unsurprisingly, ruled out of the game with a concussion.
There will surely be some type of league response after the Savage incident, but as a football fan and former player, I wonder if it will be a matter of too little, too late. We went through this song and dance the week before, after all — following a particularly violent slate of games, the NFL reportedly considered adding rules for automatic ejections, as the NCAA has implemented.
An automatic ejection would not have helped Tom Savage, though. Elvis Dumervil’s hit wasn’t dirty, and it appeared to be contact with the ground that caused the concussion. The NFL is considering band-aids to solve its problems, when the appropriate response is an emergency surgery.
The types of plays that knocked Savage out of the game aren’t new, nor is the neurological trauma sustained by football players as a result of those plays. But the response to the incident among fans seems to be much more pointed than in years’ past.
The difference this season, it seems, is a growing awareness that the wanton collateral damage inflicted by the sport just isn’t right. Thanks to our evolving understanding of the tollconditions like Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, more commonly known as CTE, can take on gridiron heroes after their playing days are done, the big hits are more cringeworthy than exhilarating.
That awareness comes with no thanks to the NFL, which took until last year to officially acknowledge the link between football and CTE, concerned about the disease’s impact on the league’s bottom line. The degenerative neurological disease has become a bogeyman for football players and fans alike. Players who have either died young or ended their own lives, like Junior Seau or disgraced Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, are now known to have suffered from the disease.
Most visibly, the New York Times ran an incendiary report in July detailing the results of a Boston University study that found CTE in the brains of 110 of 111 former NFL players, and 177 of the 202 samples examined in total. The study wasn’t perfect, but the prevalence of the disease and its link to football was impossible to ignore.
Shortly after the research ran, the player widely considered the smartest man in football, Ravens lineman John Urschel, retired. He later said the study wasn’t the sole cause for his leaving the game, but he still joined a class of other early exits like Chris Borland and Rashard Mendenhall, who chose to end their careers on their terms, before the specter of CTE had more of an opportunity impact their future selves. I think about the brain damage I caused myself with my own two concussions, and dread the thought of what might be coming for me further down the road.
That self-reflection is why football will die — the reckoning everyone who has played or who has loved someone who played now faces — as the NFL continues to let players appear to suffer seizures on the field in one moment and return to face the violence of the game in the next. If breakthroughs allow neurologists to diagnose CTE in living patients, as the most recent research suggests could be possible, that reckoning will increase a hundredfold.
If football has to die, it should.
Anecdotally, I know the death throes of the sport have already begun. My father has coached youth football since I began playing in 1998, and the last few years have seen a drastic decline in participation. He’s loved the game his whole life and has changed his approach to make it safer for his players, but he’s convinced the sport will be doomed in a few years if things don’t change from the top down.
I love football too, far more than I should. I don’t want people to stop playing. I want the game to evolve to be safer for its players, like it did when Teddy Roosevelt got involved in its early days, when player deaths were even more common. I want it to maintain some level of the violence it’s known for — and it’s important to remember that all sports come with some degree of risk — but not without the appropriate considerations to keep players as safe as possible.
Every Sunday that leaves us with travesties like Tom Savage being allowed back on the field after taking a hit that leaves him shaking on the ground is a missed opportunity to fix things. But the people in power might not care until this problem is too far gone.
If football has to die, it should. Those of us who love it will just have to be ready to let it go.