The Greek hero Odysseus faced his share of challenges in getting home. He succeeded where others failed in sailing between the monster Scylla while still evading the whirlpool Charybdis. Every summer, and happily, often in late December, the Steelers find themselves trying to pick their poison: Fail to truly prepare for what’s ahead, or get hurt trying to prepare.
Over the course of just a few weeks we have had injury scares from the Steelers’ two biggest stars. Antonio Brown, depending on whom you ask, either did or didn’t limp off the field as practice ended, and Ben Roethlisberger certainly ended his practice early with what was thought to be a potential concussion — thankfully it wasn’t.
These are both dodged bullets, but they highlight the struggle.
Much was made last season about the drop off in blocking across the league. The presumed culprit? The Collective Bargaining Agreement, and its strong limitations on padded practices. No pads means no hitting. No hitting means less learning. Less learning can easily translate into more franchise faces on the IR.
A critical injury to just one player can derail an entire season. Ask the Texans. On the other hand, an atmosphere that treats all players, or even just some, with kid gloves can create a perennial loser. Ask Todd Haley. All of this cashes out in real games, whether early in the season, where Le’Veon Bell shows rust, or late in the season when coaches are forced to consider the implications of sitting stars when playoff positioning is set, or nearly so.
All of this, though, is just a smaller manifestation of the bigger issue facing the NFL, the looming battle between player safety and the product on the field. I think it likely that my children’s grandchildren may grow up in a football-less world, that they will look back at our sport the way we look back at boxing before Queensbury.
All attempts to have football be football and football be safe are delusional. You can not have your cake and eat it too. Either the monster of mayhem will destroy brave men, or the whirlpool of safety will make shipwreck of the game.
I don’t pretend to know the solution. I only know that pretending is no solution. I know that I fear to look too deeply into my conscience, because I know what I want. I want to watch the real game, the way it once was. At the same time, like many professionals who play it, I want to watch the real game that I would not allow my children to play.
There is a reason the Romans had gladiatorial games. The reason is that the Romans, like us, liked bloody and violent sport. There are distinctions to be sure. The object of our game is to hit pay dirt. But stadiums, like the Roman Coliseum, erupt when our guy brings down their guy hard. My living room erupts in the same way, and for the same reasons. As a boy I loved watching the grace of Lynn Swann but I wanted to be Donnie Shell. There is storage space in my brain for the memory of Swann falling like a feather, cradling the ball in Super Bowl X. But that scene where Shell took out Earl Campbell on Monday Night Football, that is stored in my brain in high def, complete with the crunch of breaking ribs in surround sound.
My plan is to enjoy it while it lasts, and pray for the health of my heroes.