The problem with the injury problem

It’s not the NFL’s recent lawsuit settlement with over 4,500 former players, the one regarding the essentially unavoidable but unquestionably forever-existing problem of injuries – specifically, brain injuries – that’s going to make the injury problem go away. It’s not the NFL’s steamrolling public relations train, either. 

This is especially apparent when it’s hard to understand what the league is teaching us about if we were to blindly not-see as well as the league does its own past, refusing to acknowledge football’s responsibility, or even fein understanding of the word’s definition, for some of the same head trauma issues they hope to counter now. This is not to mention the attempted sweeping away of the overall environment surrounding injuries over the last few decades, the roaring machismo that offers dirt for your ailments and spews easily-said-from-the-sidelines platitudes about Having Heart, or something. No, we won’t mention that. In any event, the league’s PR spam won’t stop filling open space around the game, but the problem won’t go away because of it.

With its mega-corporate shell or not, football remains football. The brutality of the sport, the body-suffering going on during any given play on the field, is an essential fabric that makes up the game. Without it you’re one ingredient shy of the special recipe. And as we’ve seen with the league and general public’s ongoing adjustments towards the rules geared at trying to make the sport safer, that punishing aspect is expected, thus sometimes difficult to work around. Like trying to build a house on the roots of an Oak tree. It’s just as true and worth mentioning to say that those who play signed up to play, get paid awfully well to do so and probably really love it, even if hardly anything about their careers are promised. If there were a promise to them it’s the very moment-to-moment-ness the league operates in.

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The NFL’s injury problem isn’t really one that can be solved without making football into a sport that is not football. Still it’s a problem and, oddly enough, what makes the problem maybe not go away, but fade out of focus a bit, is the return of the games themselves.

Here is where the intensity and majesty of football, especially when played at its peak, can overshadow injuries or, more specifically, its very-public long-term effects. Then you get into the season and it snowballs. You get into big conference jousts for power (like Week 1 against the 49ers), you get into rivalries and playoff chases and it’s right where we want to be as fans. The NFL doesn’t just appear on Sundays and Mondays (and Thursdays, but that’s kinda the point), wave goodbye and leave until next weekend. It plants and expands like a giant plate of pasta in your stomach. It becomes a huge part of us. So of course when they happen injuries are a common bummer for fans, and your weekly injury report can be difficult to see for the hurt humans it actually represents.

I can fall into this group. I play and try to win at fantasy football, always attempting to overcome my own choices. I want the Packers to win every game and hate when something happens that hinders those chances. I have been “upset” at players for getting hurt or not playing or not recovering in time to play more. I have been sports-mad at the players on my fantasy team. It is not always logical to be a fan; that doesn’t mean you should not always be one, but it can have its little bouts of absurdity.

Fantasy football makes players into game pieces, injuries on your favorite team means harm to its chances of winning, of you feeling great on a Sunday afternoon. One or both of these reasons are probably why you’re watching in the first place, so injuries equal diminished chances at triumph, either for your team in real life or in the also-very-real fantasy land. For fans injuries are pests and, like all pests, they’re unwelcome.

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Every team goes through injuries. The Green Bay Packers of recent years just go through it harder than almost any other team. Grantland.com’s Bill Barnwell wrote before this season that in 2012, per Football Outsiders, the Packers were the NFL’s most injured team “by a significant margin.” Barnwell notes that only seven Packers started every regular season game a year ago. In Week 1’s loss, Green Bay played without starting safety Morgan Burnett and cornerback Casey Hayward, both out with hamstring injuries – an ailment that seemingly lingers around this team like an industrial-strength strain of the flu. Also missing time recently with hamstring injuries: Clay Matthews, Jarrett Bush, John Kuhn and Brad Jones. We all saw the consequences in Weeks 1 and 3. That’s all to say, if any fanbase can be more than a little chafed by injuries at this point, it’s probably Green Bay’s. When Bryan Bulaga was lost for the season in training camp it felt like sad business as usual; the conditioning to injuries for Packers fans, much as I’ve personally tried to counter it, has sunk in.

For fans, injuries are wins potentially left on the table and expectations unrealized, possibly forever – when things go wrong. Just as banged-up and torn to its third-and-fourth stringers was the Super Bowl XLV championship team, but that one prevailed over all. In the end injuries are bumps along the way, but if the end result is a title (a really, really hard result to earn even once) or otherwise satisfactory, they are decided afterthoughts.

This isn’t an appeal to winch-watch football or not enjoy it at all, and one hopes it doesn’t sound like that. It isn’t a black-and-white thing; complicated issues shouldn’t mutually exclude shades of gray. Whether it affects the long run of the Packers, your fantasy team or not, though, an injured player is still injured. It’s not always easy to remember that during the snowballing season, when we all happily accept football’s heavy significance in our lives. The NFL may be trying to improve the safety of its game for its players – a better route than throwing hindsight, threatened-by-lawsuit money at a group of players for Something, But We Won’t Admit What – but football is going to be itself, always. Players are going to get hurt, some will suffer, knowingly, for the rest of their lives. And we get to watch and pay a lot of our own money for it, obsess over and love it. This is the weird agreement we all know exists, even if we don’t always think about it in those terms.

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I’m not saying I’m done silently cursing a player I can’t use in fantasy football because of an injury, because at some point I’ll probably forget and do that. I’m not saying the next Packers injury won’t affect me the way it does all Packers fans who want to see the team win, who want to be content and happy in the week between games. But there’s another very muscle-and-ligament-and-bone side of the story that, at least, should be remembered from time to time while we worry about the upcoming opponent. Football’s injury problem can’t be solved like some problems, but it can be acknowledged in a fuller, more human context.

That means it’ll be messy, as the sport always has been. And getting stuck in the mess of an NFL season is better than not every time. Football can be a breathtaking game with higher highs than just about anything. It can’t be totally stripped of the violence it was born with, nor would we want it to. As it is, maybe most importantly, the sport brings much more to life – especially life in Wisconsin – than football itself. It is an experience, an atmosphere, a reason to get together and bond and be with family and friends. Hell, it’s why I’m writing this right now.

All that doesn’t mean football can’t have contradictions or different prisms to see the game through. Everything and everyone else does. Sometimes those are hard to ignore. When players get hurt, it should be hard to ignore. They are more than a line on the injury report. Because of football and all it is, that’s usually hardest to see when the game is on.

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