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The Year of Watching Football Through Your Fingers

After months of grisly injuries to star players, NFL fans have been forced to choose between wanting athletes to succeed and wanting them to protect themselves before it’s too late

Here is a complete list of things I would like for Rams running back Todd Gurley to do. Play every snap forever. Run for a minimum of 300 yards per game. Hurdle grown men. Make children sob with happiness for years to come. Freelance his services to other teams. Keep his repaired left knee safe. Wrap it in bubble wrap. Wrap himself in bubble wrap. Sit comfortably in one of those sideline blanket-jackets for the entirety of every non-L.A. game. Better yet, stay in L.A. for every game. Go to the spa. Keep well away from football.

There have been some injuries in the NFL this year, in the way that there have been some storms on Jupiter. If you’ve found that it makes it a little trickier to get excited about the feats of those who are still intact, well, you’re not alone. On Sunday, it was MVP candidate Antonio Brown who went down, helped off the field on the shoulders of trainers with what was ultimately revealed to be a partially torn calf muscle. (The Steelers made a point of saying they expect Brown back for the playoffs, the sort of optimism about a serious injury that you might only find in a place with ample Toradol.) This happened just one week after Carson Wentz, one of the season’s few bright spots and another contender for league MVP, tore his ACL and joined a baffling list of serious injuries to many of the sport’s biggest stars. Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone. Deshaun Watson tore his ACL, as did Julian Edelman and Dalvin Cook. Richard Sherman and Eric Berry each ruptured an Achilles tendon. Joe Thomas ended his consecutive-snap streak with a torn triceps. Dont’a Hightower tore a pectoral muscle. J.J. Watt broke his leg. Derek Carr broke his back. David Johnson had nine carries before he went down for the year with a dislocated wrist. Andrew Luck, out with an ambiguous shoulder issue, hasn’t played once this season; Sam Bradford has been out with knee concerns since Week 1. In a single game, the Giants lost four wide receivers to varyingly gruesome injuries, including Odell Beckham Jr. and Brandon Marshall.

This is just a sampling, the awful tears and breakages that have befallen some of the more famous limbs and ligaments across the league. Some of this year’s scariest injuries, meanwhile, have happened to athletes whose names were less likely to be stitched onto the backs of fans in attendance: Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier, who reportedly lost movement in his lower extremities before undergoing spinal stabilization surgery, or Colts tight end Brandon Williams, who went limp after a helmet-to-helmet hit and was rushed off the field on a stretcher. It’s enough to make you think, maybe, that a single game of football is just too dangerous to play without a good reason. To hope that winning, or the chance of winning, is good enough.

You get used to it, in a way—accustomed, if not exactly numb, to seeing a body go limp, the rush of action that leaves one young man on the ground clutching a knee or an ankle or, most horribly, nothing at all. You learn to judge the severity: what a limp means, what hobbling to the locker room or waiting for a cart or being strapped into something suggests. You get used to the stunned stoicism on the players’ faces, and the ones who can only cover their faces with their towels. You start to expect the network to turn the cameras away—out of respect, or maybe to limit what you will have to see, the grimaces and tears you will have to contemplate the next time you decide to tune in. You learn to say the things you can say. What a scary hit. That looked bad. Oh no, not him.

And so you get situations like Sunday, when Russell Wilson, one of the league’s leading passers, was beseeched to leave the game. His Seahawks were in the midst of a beatdown at home; to so many fans, the only thing to do for the beloved quarterback was to keep him safe from his own sport. If football increasingly feels like Russian roulette with ligaments and a blender, then you mustn’t risk a body—a talented one, a cherished one—unless you have to. Unless you can win. And even then, hope some higher power swoops in with bubble wrap.

There are conflicting theories about why this plague of devastation has descended on the league. Many boil down to the sport sharpening itself year by year, finding ways to recruit and build bigger and faster and stronger and ever-more-freight-train-like players. It’s also likely, as a Football Outsiders report concluded earlier this season, that the number of injuries in the NFL hasn’t increased at quite the rate that it seems like, and we’re instead seeing the amplification of better reporting of injuries. That so many of these injuries would have befallen the league’s stars, then, should be more bad luck than a death knell. But the problem goes far beyond them. CBS Sports lists at least 39 players who’ve suffered ACL or MCL injuries this season alone. Most of those athletes aren’t household names, and in a league that stands alone in its refusal to offer players guaranteed contracts, many face a future with little in the way of a financial safety net.

So what is it, now, to be thrilled by an excellent football player? It’s the fun of it, of course, watching him devise or run incredible routes; to keep his feet just barely inside the lines; to stop his opponents like a brick wall. But it’s also the knowing what could happen to those knees and ankles and shoulders and all the parts that hold them together. It’s the knowing what increasingly seems like sooner or later will happen. There’s a word for this: dread.

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