No one will say the P word. After Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier suffered a terrifying injury in Cincinnati a month ago, you have only heard the good parts. Shazier is "making progress." Shazier has regained feeling in his legs. Shazier is "working hard to get back." The Steelers are "very happy for him." His father believes he’ll play football again. Shazier even returned to practice!... albeit in a wheelchair. That has all been presented to you, the football public, as fantastic news. I’m not just presuming this. Look at how it’s being framed:
And yes, this is good news, of a sort. But it’s only good news in the context of an injury so utterly awful that the NFL—a league that will fine teams if they don’t disclose injuries in time for you to set your fantasy lineup—hasn’t even told us what it is. All we know about Shazier is that he tackled Josh Malone, crumpled to the ground, grabbed his back, and couldn’t move his legs. He has since had spinal stabilization surgery and his prognosis, at least publicly, remains hazy.
Shazier is entitled to his privacy, and obviously his attitude toward recovery is exactly the sort of attitude you’d want from a patient. But this isn’t about Shazier. This is about the Steelers, and the NFL, deftly sidestepping the obvious horrors of Shazier’s injury and turning it into a bizarre rah-rah story. This game put a man in a wheelchair, and yet there’s every likelihood that the Steelers will invite Shazier to Sunday’s playoff game against Jacksonville and have the crowd cheer him and wave Terrible Towels and no one in the crowd will ever have to reckon with the broken body they’re laying direct eyes upon.
The last time an NFL player was paralyzed was Buffalo’s Kevin Everett, an injury that occurred ten years ago but may as well be generations removed from an America that now knows the full extent of what football can do to a man’s brain and spine. Everett finally walked again, and made an emotional return to the field in Buffalo once he could, but his quality of life since that hit has been indisputably difficult. He is in near-constant pain, often waking up from the spasms. He can’t run. He can barely drive. He, of course, never played football again.
The NFL, in a morbid way, has been riding a lucky streak since Everett’s injury. Green Bay’s Jermichael Finley walked soon after being temporarily paralyzed by Cleveland’s Tashuan Gipson (who, coincidentally, will be on the field playing against Pittsburgh on Sunday as a member of the Jaguars). Another Packer, Davante Adams, had a 10 TD season despite suffering a hit from Chicago’s Danny Trevathan that looked like it could kill a man. And even though the NFL has been confronted with insurmountable evidence of brain damage in former players—horrifying CAT scans, CTE diagnoses, player suicides—they have had the luxury, if you can call it that, of all that damage occurring out of plain sight.
That is what has made the Shazier incident so weird, and frankly even a bit sinister. Yeah, most of Twitter said “Fuck this game” the night Shazier got hurt. But, by keeping customers in the dark as to the true severity of Shazier’s injury after that, and only focusing on the positive aspects of his prognosis, it feels as if the Steelers and the NFL deliberately turned this whole thing into an episode of A Football Life before they EVER got the proper amount of shit for Shazier getting injured to begin with. Go look at the hit again. It’s fucking terrifying. It’s the kind of hit that potentially could have served as a turning point in America’s attitude toward football. It was a true visible representation of what football can do to someone, perhaps someone you love. But the NFL kept the show going and, remarkably, never really had to answer for it. It’s quite something, how they find new ways to make memories disappear.