The year is 2057. Science has created a race of cyborgs that are afforded all the rights of full humans, including the opportunity to play professional sports. Tom Brady is flourishing for the Tulsa Fleshlights, the NFL’s 54th franchise, but now he is mostly machine. His brain is perfectly preserved in a skull-shaped snow globe atop his titanium shoulders.
It’s Week 25 of the regular season, and Brady needs a win to get the Fleshlights into the playoffs for the eighth straight year. It’s sixth down and 6.4 meters to go (Canada forces America to adopt the metric system after winning the War of 2036), when Brady is pulverized by Tank Robotsky, a notoriously dirty robot linebacker that has been fined hundreds of thousands of loonies (again, Canada) during his career.
Brady is clearly in distress, as his protective glass tank has cracked, and his brain is lying on the 74-meter line. His limbs are twitching violently as sparks fly from his neck. A trainer jumps into a Zuckerberg Teleporter, appears on the field, and scoops Brady’s brain back into the cracked case before they teleport back to the sideline.
“We’ll probably see Josh McCown on this next series,” remarks 88-year-old Joe Buck, who is not at all robotic but does have a full head of hair.
Brady is back on the field five minutes later with masking tape holding his glass skull together. Buck, his shoulder-length blond mane flapping in the breeze at Martha Stewart Stadium, is outraged. How could the Fleshlights allow Brady to put himself in danger like this? His brain was just spilled onto the playing surface and they are letting him back in the game? Not surprisingly, Brady throws four inaccurate passes and the Fleshlights go six-and-out.
That’s when the independent doctor robot declares Brady has a concussion and the malfunction won’t allow him to return to the game. Brady, of course, pitches a fit, which announcers say is reflective of his competitiveness.
As absurd as that future sounds, it is no more absurd than what the Houston Texans did in allowing Tom Savage to return to the game Sunday afternoon after the quarterback suffered the most obvious brain injury in the history of brain injuries. And if the NFL doesn’t give its concussion protocols some teeth, nothing will change between now and 2057—so who's to say that any of my Brady-as-Fleshlights-QB story can’t actually happen?
Violence is inherent in football. There’s no way to remove it completely, or even to an extent that makes everyone happy. The Steelers' Ryan Shazier was attempting a routine tackle last week when he suffered a spine injury. No matter what rules the NFL enact to limit head injuries, short of becoming a flag football league they will never completely disappear.
What can change, however, is what the league and teams do when a player has clearly suffered brain trauma. You did not need to be a medical professional to understand that Savage was in extreme distress when his arms began to shake as he lied flat on his back after a devastating hit from Elvis Dumervil of the 49ers.
Texans coach Bill O’Brien, likely covering the asses of everyone in the organization, said after the game that Savage was checked and showed no signs of a concussion, and that it was only after he came to the sideline after the next series that his condition became clear. When it’s time to choose between admitting maliciousness or incompetence, teams will always choose incompetence (and pass the blame on to the independent doctors).
You can understand how O’Brien may have missed it from his spot on the sideline, but how does anyone near a working television set not try to get in touch with the sideline and insist that Savage needs immediate help? He may have been having a seizure! Are doctors looking at television sets? Assistant coaches? Does anyone care about the well-being of players in Savage’s situation? Especially since he was evaluated for a concussion last week against Tennessee, too.
Sometimes players will deftly hide an injury. Sometimes a routine tackle that causes a concussion will be missed by spotters. But you have to be cold-hearted, visually impaired, or a fucking idiot to think that Savage should’ve been allowed back into that game.
The obvious way for the NFL to avoid concussed players returning a game is to inflict serious penalties on teams that allow it. If a player doesn’t go through the protocol, like what happened with Russell Wilson earlier this season, take away a first-round draft pick. If an incident like the one with Savage happens, take away the pick and levy a massive fine. Make the team responsible when concussion symptoms that were obvious to everyone but the doctors somehow only magically appear upon another exam five minutes later.
For now, the NFL Players Association is asking for a review, as NFLPA executive George Atallah announced on Twitter Monday:
If there were actual consequences for teams, things would change for the better as quickly as coaches pass the buck when questioned about a concussed player going back into a game. Is Tom Savage playing out the string against the lowly Niners worth a first-round pick? No, it is not.
Another issue is the player’s responsibility. In a fantasy world where a player on a non-guaranteed contract will volunteer that he is injured and remove himself from the game, thus earning a stigma of weakness that could result in being released and ending a career in a sport that’s just one big dick-measuring contest, sure, that’s definitely a thing that should be expected of players.
But since this is the real world and there’s a better chance of an NFL team in Tulsa being named the Fleshlights than that happening, the responsibility for player safety falls on the teams and the league itself. Athletes need to be saved from themselves sometimes. If teams can't be bothered to care about the personal well-being of their players at the risk of franchise success, then the league needs to make it clear that risking a player's health will very much jeopardize the organization's health.
The Savage situation demonstrates just how out of whack this whole calculus is because it doesn’t even make sense for the Texans to want him back in the game. Heading into Sunday, they were 4-8. Their season is over. Plus, Savage sucks. At least when Russell Wilson skips the tent and runs back on to the field while Pete Carroll looks the other way, you understand since Seattle is in the middle of a playoff push and the Seahawks' backup quarterback is… I want to say Charlie Whitehurst, but I don’t know.
I won’t pretend and sanctimoniously proclaim that this is why I won’t watch the NFL anymore. I’m well aware of this league’s nature and have been for some time. I put myself through Cowboys-Giants on Sunday afternoon because I’m hooked. Most of my identity is forged through the results of Giants games and how my fantasy football is doing. I’m complicit and not proud of it. It’s all very sad.
But you can’t tell me that sights like Savage flopping and twitching and being inserted like everything is OK isn’t a turnoff for some people. At the very least, it’s not helping to attract new fans to the game. The NFL could immediately take steps to improve how it handles brain injuries during games, and help its bottom line—maybe that’s the rationale league execs need to hear enough times before they finally take action to protect injured players.
Either way, though, you can bet your life the NFL will still exist in 2057 and Brady will be in the playoffs. Go Fleshlights.