Achilles Heel

In its unalloyed praise for the eternal necessity of discipline, the sports commercial is a worthy heir to Puritan austerity. Excess physique is grace rewarded. Lean muscle is proof that God loves us and wants us to be strong. At least until we return to the action to find a 25-year-old sobbing as he tries to hold a ligament in place and we wonder how many college educations his extended family has just lost forever.

Concussions aren't the only problem

Ricardo Lockette. Still from YouTube, via "slugger78852."

Halfway through its fiftieth season, the National Football League has been overtaken by injuries. Star after star has been struck. Just last week, Keenan Allen, the periodically unstoppable receiver for the San Diego Chargers, was lost to a kidney injury while receiving legend Steve Smith, currently of Baltimore, and Miami’s sack-genius Cameron Wake may have ended their careers with torn Achilles tendons. Wake began hopping on one leg in the middle of a play, collapsed, and then, when it was over, lay on his elbows, calmly removed his helmet, tucked his mouth guard into his facemask, looked up into the lights, and waited. Smith was tackled, rolled over, touched his left ankle twice, and signaled to the sidelines immediately. Before helping him off, they wrapped his face with a towel. He was the twelfth Raven placed on the season-ending injured reserve list this year. At least eight different teams have used two quarterbacks or more. Why are so many players getting hurt?

The immediate cause is a revolution in what is known as “sports nutrition.” Bodies that once required anabolic steroids to build can now be constructed from ingredients available at your local drugstore: historic amounts of protein, mostly, to go with an ever blooming bouquet of supplements. Although more men have put more muscle in more places than ever before, they have yet to isolate the compounds capable of adjusting bones and ligaments, which persist in stubbornly traditional sizes. The injury wave in the NFL is just this conflict between expanding muscular forces and limited relations of sinew amplified by professional time and resources. Torn triceps, biceps and pectorals—muscle groups not formerly developed enough to be ripped from the bones that hold them—are now common. Knees break more frequently when these vast territories of muscle careen into one another, ligaments snapping like guitar strings as giant torsos collide wildly above them.

This is not to say the game was ever safe, only that now more than ever greatness is limited to bursts between injuries, when for a few precious quarters the biggest and the fastest are healthy. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell is an effortlessly exciting running back at six foot one and 240 pounds. He became a star last season and by early December had tied Walter “Sweetness” Peyton’s record for consecutive games with more than two hundred yards in rushing and receiving combined. Then he hurt his knee and missed the playoffs. He was suspended the first two games of this year for smoking weed, was healthy for six glorious contests, and then blew out his knee when he was grabbed from behind and rolled by 250-pound Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict. Bell’s out for the remainder of the season. Burfict, for his part, attacked a television camera a week later, when his momentum carried him out the back of the end zone on an incomplete pass. Perhaps he was excited after successfully navigating the grueling recovery from microfracture surgery the previous year, in which tiny holes had been drilled into his knee in order to stimulate the regrowth of cartilage. In the replay, he leaps directly into the giant lens, facemask first, and then watches as the machine falls slowly to one side, its operator helplessly trailing behind. The Bengals have asked Burfict to apologize.

The increasingly frequent cycles of triumph, injury, training, and recovery have made the cult of fitness around football even more martial and epic than usual. Advertisements are now composed entirely of jump cuts between rippling bodies yelling, barking, testifying to some endless purgatory of reps, sets, and routines. Menacing homilies about commitment linger on screen to be joined by this model of shoe or that style of gear. “Every single day,” we hear Tom Brady chant stoically, “every single day,” as his image, multiplied a thousandfold by technology, drills relentlessly with itself, perfectly in sync, in a macabre echo of authoritarian spectacle.”You are the sum of all your training,” Under Armour threatens us, before urging, finally, at the end, “Rule Yourself.” In its unalloyed praise for the eternal necessity of discipline, the sports commercial is a worthy heir to Puritan austerity. Excess physique is grace rewarded. Lean muscle is proof that God loves us and wants us to be strong. At least until we return to the action to find a 25-year-old sobbing as he tries to hold a ligament in place and we wonder how many college educations his extended family has just lost forever.

The saddest sight I have ever seen on a football field was not my team losing but our running back, Steven Ridley, destroying his knee a few short months away from being rewarded for a lifetime of early morning drills and mandatory drug tests. With half as many yards to his name, his healthy colleague signed a $12 million, three-year contract in free agency; Ridley signed for one and one. He has no carries this season.

That injuries have picked up just when the game is finally paying attention to concussions is, of course, only partly a coincidence. Players have been getting bigger for years, but it feels like some invisible threshold has been crossed where health is more like the exception than the rule. This gives material support to the stories of players living with the aftereffects of concussions. You didn’t hear about this kind of damage before, now we see it every week.

Perhaps in the future men will simply become too large to play games like football without killing each other. I sat with this thought last Sunday as I watched Ricardo Lockette, wide receiver for the Seahawks, lie motionless on the field for an uncomfortably long time. He had taken a rare hit, the kind that instantly transforms the game into something sinister and obscene. One minute it’s a football game, and Ricardo Lockette is speeding down the field in punt coverage, and then Cowboys safety Jeff Heath’s helmet is hitting him in the area of the neck, cutting the signal from his brain. Lockette goes limp as his muscles release simultaneously and he drops directly downward like he’s been momentarily exempted from the laws of momentum, or maybe just subjected to those of gravity for the first time. He falls like an object and lies on his side in the grass. And then it’s just a tight scrum of medical technicians amidst men and boys on a field, some praying and some just standing around, wondering what the fuck they and everyone around them is thinking, playing a game like this in front of millions of families across America.

I was watching the game on my “device.” Curled in bed on a Sunday, screen propped unsteadily against a pillow, I wondered along with millions of others: Was this it? Had the worst finally happened? Had a wide receiver actually been killed by a safety—which was a ridiculous name, now that I thought about it, for a position whose job it is to hit people—live on television? The announcers, witness to dozens of such injuries in their time, teetered on the edge of panic. Typically a concussed player is only out for a second. They are usually moving again by the time they hit the grass. But Lockette wasn’t moving at all. “We have not seen any movement from Lockette yet,” one of the commentators kept stammering, over and over, terribly aware that things were too serious to risk any return to the usual banter about hustle and desire making all the difference. So they took a break and the commercial with the thousands of practicing Bradys played again, only now his koan “Every single day” seemed compulsive and damaged, less mantra than tremor. Brady has taken a lot of hits, we think, as a Lexus swoops passionately through a CGI autumn, and we are back on the field where Lockette still hasn’t moved.

What would actually happen, we thought, what would we do? What would the commentators say? Would they cry? Did we want them to cry? Would we cry? Would they tell us what had happened or just cart him off the field and update us later when they figured out how? They had barely showed the replay before someone realized the potential stakes of the footage. From then on they stayed with long shots of players kneeling on the field, some in circles, hands gripped tightly together, some by themselves on a single knee, chewing their mouth guards and staring out into the air. Did the NFL have a death protocol? Does anyone?

I’ll confess to an overwhelming sense of shame in those long minutes, a realization that I was going to have to tell anyone who asked that I had been watching. That I had lain in my pajamas in bed on a Sunday and watched one grown man kill another, live, on my device. And that while this had not been anyone’s intention—I’d seen dozens more aggressive hits that day—it was nevertheless not entirely surprising. I stared at the men moving aimlessly on my screen. They had such good definition. Would the season be cancelled? Did the sport just end? What will become of us? Then Lockette moved. First a little, then more, and then with his hand he gave the L sign of Seattle’s fearsome secondary, the “Legion of Boom,” as he was carried off strapped to a stretcher. The cheering was quiet at first but grew louder. Relief gave way to nervous embarrassment. “Very glad to see that,” the color man said. And then the game continued.

This is the second installment of Stephen Squibb’s football column. Read more here.

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