As Michael Vick spat blood onto the Georgia Dome turf on Sunday night, millions of Americans winced. What a waste, to lose all of those fantasy points on a fluke collision.
Vick’s concussed brain, Peyton Manning’s neck, Jamaal Charles’ torn ACL, Arian Foster’s balky hamstring—thanks to fantasy football, NFL fans feel more emotionally invested in body parts than in the human beings who possess them. Foster, the Texans running back, said recently that fantasy players’ lack of humanity sickens him. That’s all well and good, Arian, but let’s ponder the alternative: In a world without fantasy, nobody outside of Houston would know who you are.
Fantasy football is just the newest way for sports fans to objectify athletes. Grantland Rice “godded up” the ballplayers, treating them as flawless, mythic superstars. Today’s football and basketball stars are most often depicted as either money-grubbing louts or agglomerations of tweaked, sprained, and lacerated ligaments and organs. I prefer the biological approach. It’s at least more honest—as the annual scouting combine shows, NFL players really are treated as cuts of meat who can run around cones. If anything, the fantasy-driven injury-report obsession makes us more protective of guys like Foster and Charles and Vick. These are our players, and their injuries are devastating to our teams. That’s probably the closest we’ll ever get to bridging the chasm between athlete and fan.
The Falcons-Eagles game—which Atlanta won 35-31 after Vick’s third-quarter departure—also proved for the billionth time that football violence is not predictable or categorizable. Roger Goodell has futzed with the league’s rulebook in an attempt to ratchet down the game’s most-frightening-looking injuries: hits to the quarterback’s head, kill shots on defenseless receivers, blows to kamikaze special-teamers. Vick’s concussion, caused when an Atlanta Falcon knocked the quarterback backward into his beefy Eagles offensive lineman Todd Herremans, reveals the limitations of this exercise. For the NFL, this was the worst kind of head injury—one it’s impossible to spin as a consequence of rule-breaking.
Atlanta cornerback Dunta Robinson’s hit on Philly’s Jeremy Maclin, by contrast, fell right into the NFL’s naughty-play bear trap. As Maclin caught the ball across the middle of the field, Robinson launched himself into the air, tagging the receiver under the chin with the crown of his helmet. While slow-motion replay makes instantaneous on-field movements seem more calculated than they could ever possibly be, Robinson’s hit did seem unnecessarily vicious. If any type of play could and should be excised from the NFL, this is it.
Though the NFL has said it’s willing to suspend players for whatever hits it happens to deem illegal this week, no player has yet missed a game for pummeling a defenseless receiver. Robinson, a repeat offender—he was fined $25,000 last year for knocking out the Eagles’ DeSean Jackson—could be the first. If the NFL doesn’t sit Robinson down, Goodell, et al., will look hypocritical for failing to enforce a rule they’ve lauded themselves for introducing. If the league suspends him, it will set a precedent: One suspension will lead to a whole lot more.
So, what do you think Goodell’s going to do, Barry? And do you agree with the Concussion Blog’s Dustin Fink that NBC was spinning for the NFL in saying that the obviously woozy Vick had a “neck injury”?