This past Sunday morning, it was 60 degrees and sunny as I walked under the palm trees on my way to my friend's house to watch the AFC Championship, sporting my New England Patriots hoodie, enduring jeers from locals decked out in red San Francisco 49ers jerseys. As a Boston sports fan recently transplanted to San Francisco, I felt good. The Patriots were 9.5-point favorites over the Baltimore Ravens, playing at home in Foxborough, and I was already looking forward to a Patriots-49ers Super Bowl.
Needless to say, inspired by avenging last year's AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, and an emotional Ray Lewis on a pre-retirement mission (at this point, the man seems like he could fly to the moon and live there if he felt like it), the Ravens had other plans. After Tom Brady's uncharacteristically lackluster performance through three quarters -- including a non-Belichickian moment when the Patriots failed to call a timeout as time ran out before the second half, settling for a field goal instead of a touchdown -- with 13 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Brady handed the ball off to running back Stevan Ridley, who for a split second, found a hole near midfield.
A split second later, Ridley ran straight into a helmet-to-helmet hit from Ravens safety Bernard Pollard. Leveled so hard, he instantly fell to the ground, forgetting where he was, letting go of the football as if it were a flower in the wind. As Ridley was laid out on his back with his hands over his head for several seconds, the Ravens' defense rushed to recover the fumble.
Seeing a man laid out cold on the field, crushed, unconsciousness, without life, and right next to him, 10 Ravens and Patriots players and three referees in a 2,000-pound pig pile fighting for the loose football right next to him, soured the game for me. "Ridley was knocked out immediately and crumpled like a rag doll," wrote The Boston Globe.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh was not apologetic about Pollard's hit, in fact he praised his player for making a key play. "That was the turning point of the game," Harbaugh said. "...It was just a tremendous hit. It was football at its finest. It was Bernard Pollard making a great physical tackle -- just as good a tackle as you're ever going to see in football right there. That just probably turned the game around right there."
Football is football, tackling well and hitting hard are essential elements of the game; the players that play harder and hit harder, are the players you want on your team. Harbaugh is right -- Pollard's tackle won the Ravens the game -- but in the process, it also turned a man into a rag doll.
The medical risks associated with N.F.L. football have been well documented, and in 2011, dozens of retired players filed lawsuits against the league, saying it concealed information about the neurological effects of multiple concussions, which had led to long-term brain damage including dementia, memory loss, and disorientation. In an effort to protect its players, this season the N.F.L. moved up the kickoff line, and took the bold step to discourage brain damage by doling out a 15-yard penalty for hits to the head -- the same repercussion for dancing too much in the endzone.
Even a minor football fan has seen hits far worse than Pollard's blast on Ridley -- and watched players get carted off the field on stretchers, or sustain season-ending injuries. Pollard is not the culprit -- although he has previously given season-ending injuries to Brady, Wes Welker, and Rob Gronkowski -- 'It's part of the game,' as they say, it's what the players get paid, and get paid very well, to do.
Yet, when does the game itself become suspect? At what point does a fan realize that a person's long-term mental health is probably more important than recovering a 15-ounce leather ball? Or, is the power of a grown man putting on a purple and black, or blue and red replica jersey, with another man's last name on it, and watching three hours of car commercials and drinking piss-colored beer on a Sunday afternoon, so inebriating, so American, that we become proxy gladiators, seeking victory at all costs, comfortably numb to the concussions?
Had the tables been turned, and the turnover instead caused by a Patriot hit on a Ravens running back leading to a concussion, I would have been jumping up and down, ecstatic, screaming, "Oh, that was a great hit, fuuuuuumble, Pats got the ball, Pats got the ball, you suck Ravens, GO PAAAAAATS!"
Walking home after the game, demoralized, still in my Pats hoodie, staring up at the palm trees, I realized I needed to take a break from football for awhile. Or, at least for two weeks.