The Devil's Bargain

You can look away from football’s barbarism as long as you like—until it stares back at you in the mirror

So much humanity gets lost inside those helmets. And then masculinity and football huddle to protect the violent business, and keep so much of the pain concealed. But every once in a while the dirtiest compromises in America's most popular sport spill into our living rooms as reminders of what we're watching, as uncomfortable and unpleasant as blood surprise splattering upon our faces. The fun and games pause for a moment then, and the broadcaster's tone shifts to somber, and we're left with incongruous scenes that don't ever look right on something called a field of play. Scared gladiators kneeling in a prayer circle. An ambulance on the 40-yard-line. Or a head immobilized ever so carefully on a stretcher.

     This has always been the risk baked into this barbaric game America loves more than any other. We all know it. Accept it. Then ignore it. Until the nausea in our stomach reminds us of all the devils disguised in this deal. When it happened to Miami Dolphins Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, we were suddenly left horrified and helpless enough to join the angry mob in search of the soothing that can come with blame. How could this be allowed to happen? Why? It was as if all our brains had been scrambled by that hit, that video, that reminder of the labyrinth of lies we must tell ourselves about football to avoid seeing even the most obvious of inconvenient truths so that we may all can keep cheering.

     A week ago, Tagovailoa got up from a hit looking so cobwebbed in the head that, if this had been a boxing match, the referee would have waved off the fight in protection of the fighter's brain. And that's a sport where the primary goal is to do that to someone's head. The union that protects football players demanded an investigation into why Tagovailoa was allowed to keep playing after wobbling like that.  A few days later, on too little rest because greedy football has to own Thursday nights on television, too, he was ragdolled to the Cincinnati turf on a hit that didn't look that terrible by the standards of the sport, and we got a visual that many of us had never seen before in football from a quarterback -- his fingers on both hands splayed and frozen in front of his facemask in directions they aren't supposed to go, athleticism short-circuited, all of us getting to see for ourselves without needing any concussion protocol or medical degree that there had been a scrambling of the brain's wiring into something that looked like a seizure symptom.

     It wasn't just the union demanding an investigation after that. The feeling of being horrified doesn't patiently wait for the results of MRIs or investigations or explanations. Social-media outrage, as you know, might be the only sport in America bigger than the one that produced this particular indignance.

    This visual doesn't happen very often to anybody in football. That was part of the shock. We aren't used to seeing a professional football player look like a shaken baby. But it certainly doesn't happen ever at the quarterback position. The rules are different for them. They changed when Tom Brady got hurt once. So quarterbacks are playing a different game than anyone else on the field. Safer, by rule. To protect the guys who star in the commercials and sell the game and move product. There are only a dozen of them, maybe fewer. Just about everyone else in this sport is a literal number, face masked. But even with all the rule changes, it isn't quite safe back there, either, is it?

       Football had just happened to one of the rare guys on the field who isn't quite as disposable as the rest. And an adorable one at that. One that we feel like we've known since college. One surrounded by hope on a then-undefeated team that hasn't won a playoff game in a generation. A sweet young man. A baby face. The humanity was no longer lost inside the helmet, and masculinity and football could no longer huddle usefully to protect the violent business. There was a human being we cared about under those splayed, frozen fingers. Or at least one we feel like we know. And he has never looked that fragile, that vulnerable, that unsafe.

      The horror of that made us all wonder with discomfort not why we we were watching any of this, mind you, but why the doctors and Dolphins had allowed this unpleasant reminder into our lives before bed. It was like hearing a gunshot at what had been a great party. But instead of turning and running away, we all went hunting not merely for the shooter but for the manufacturers of all the individual gun parts. We blamed the Dolphins and doctors and coaches and the league and the protocols, and some of us even concocted a labyrinth of conspiracy and lies with our distrust of American institutions in 2022. But you know what we didn't do very much?

      Blame football.

      Maybe because that's the only one of the blames that would require a mirror.

      People don't realize how big and sturdy even Brady and Peyton Manning actually are, or how much protection they provide themselves by getting rid of the ball so quickly and without scrambling around. They'd tower over most of the people you've met in your life and you'd be surprised by how large they are if you stood next to them because our perception of their size is distorted by the giants who surround them. Tagovailoa is slight by comparison, listed at what appears to be an inflated 216 pounds. In search of flexibility and mobility, as the sack savages get faster and more menacing, the quarterbacks are getting smaller in this league as the players chasing them get bigger. The man who ragdolled Tagovailoa, Josh Tupou, weighs 345 pounds.

       It is rare to see a quarterback launched anymore. Hell, we've gotten so used to quarterback being protected by rule that we expect to see flags whenever that position or our position are jostled by the violence. "Unnecessary roughness" is the call, as if the entire sport isn't that. Tupou has been throwing around 216 pounds in the weight room since he was a teenager to try to get to the top of bigger-stronger-faster in an arena that is survival of the fittest. He looks like he has 216 pounds of protein in his breakfast. For perspective, the 130-pound weight difference between Tupuo and Tua is the weight difference between a teenager and a toddler, a father and a fourth-grader. There's a reason we usually have weight classes in all our other violent sports.

       A boxer died in the hospital last week five days after being knocked out in the ring. He was a junior welterweight named Luis Quinones, and he was 25. We did not know him the way we think we know Tagovailoa, and we did not have to watch it happen in the ring. But only because we were spared. We all know the risk in that sport, accept it, then ignore it until the disgust of nausea in our stomach reminds us of all the devils disguised in this deal. It is an oxymoronic ideal, trying to make violent things safe. We can only strive to make them safer.

       The concussion protocols are inexact, especially when players are incentivized to lie in order to stay in the game. Fewer than ten years ago, before there was a protocol, before football denied its concussion problem and then tried to make it go away with a nearly $1 billion settlement, a quarterback would have wobbled like Tagovailoa did and we would have called him tough while very much expecting him to stay in the game. And here's another thing: The protocols can identify concussions but not prevent them. They provide merely the illusion of safety, making us feel better about things. Football, by its very existence, is an exercise in brain damage. There's CTE happening on every field every Sunday. And Monday. And Thursday. Every once in a while, though, we all have to deal with that ugly truth together with an ugly visual as opposed to pushing it ten years down the road, where it can exist more quietly and alone as the ringing inside of a former player's head. But it is an exercise in gymnastics to get your morality and humanity and decency all aligned whenever something you love regularly produces something you hate.

       It shows you the myopia at the center of the spectacle that Dolphin Coach Mike McDaniel, who seems like a kind and thoughtful man, actually said that he would never knowingly put a player in harm's way. Think about that for a second. Think about what he does for a living. Think about how numb to carnage you have to be to not understand that, as a football coach, all you ever do by letting anyone take the field is knowingly put them in harm's way.

       Once upon a time, in the Colosseum, the only people participating as gladiators in fights to the death were inmates and slaves. But the glory and applause eventually became enough to lure volunteers. Every Sunday, on a day for rest and religion, cities gather around their stadiums to cheer numbers and colors and regional identity, and this habit is handed down by generation. The disposable employees volunteer for the money inside the maw of the machine, a machine that keeps growing at least in part because it is violent. Those people out there are braver than most of us. Or less afraid of consequences. Or feel so bulletproof with youth and confidence that they assume it will happen to someone other than them. It is not in the nature of the people who do this for a living to listen to danger instead of trying to overcome it. Otherwise they wouldn't be doing this for a living. It was Upton Sinclair who said, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

        Chris Nowinski was dismissed as a raving lunatic, especially by Dolphin fans, when he saw what happened to Tagovailoa and said all the coaches and medical staff should be fired and that Tagovailoa should not play again this season or for the Dolphins ever again. He was emotional and angry ... and also happens to have more expertise here than most. He has been a prisoner inside his own skull since he had to retire from wrestling at 24, Tagovailoa's age. He lives alone with the sleep disorder, the nausea, the headaches. He serves on the NFL Players Association Mackey-White Health and Safety Committee. He's a neuroscientist. He said six hours before Thursday's game that there wasn't any circumstance under which Tagovailoa should be allowed to take the field, and he said that the decision makers should be charged with murder if Tagovailoa died. The language he used was more extreme than any you've ever heard from someone with his expertise, at least in part because he hasn't felt heard despite his expertise.

        It isn't hard to understand his frustration.

        Imagine if you had more information than most about approaching doom but nobody seemed to be listening.

        Imagine if you were scared and screaming but didn't feel like you could be heard above all the cheering. 

Dan Le Batard
Dan Le Batard