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N.F.L.’s Next Man Up Ethos Persists Through Injury and Pandemic

It’s never an easy transition, the CBS broadcaster Jim Nantz said last Sunday, shifting from discussing a grotesque season-ending injury to talking about football plays, but since that is what he and analyst Tony Romo were tasked with, that is what they did.

It’s what millions of TV viewers did, too, after Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott was yanked down by Giants defensive back Logan Ryan at such an angle, and with such force, that his right ankle buckled. Prescott, his eyes welling, was ferried off the field at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, in a medical cart.

The game, as always, went on. A new quarterback, Andy Dalton, came in for Dallas. The Cowboys beat the Giants. Prescott spent the evening in surgery.

A variation of this scene seems to unfold every week in the N.F.L. Heads bow, prayers are said, players kneel around a teammate felled by a torn ligament or ruptured tendon or broken bone. It was emotional watching the aftermath of Prescott’s injury, the former N.F.L. quarterback Brian Griese said, when teammates and coaches surrounded him in a hushed stadium.

“They do unbelievable things — they run through a wall sometimes and get back and pop up and run back to the huddle — and it’s easy to forget that they are human beings,” said Griese, now an analyst for ESPN’s “Monday Night Football,” in a telephone interview. He added, “It’s not natural or normal for somebody that we watch every week, and we root for, that in one moment they’re going to be the hero, and in the blink of an eye, their season’s over and they’re done, and there’s ramifications for their career. And we take five minutes and move on. That’s not normal. And I hope it never feels normal.”

In the cold calculus of the N.F.L., players are devalued and commodified, packaged for consumption on Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays. The most seductive narratives are player comebacks, and the worse the injury, the better — the more inspiring — the return. The connection is inescapable: A life-altering injury is followed by months of physical and mental anguish, and then, hopefully, a career begins anew.

ImagePrescott left the game with tears welling and spent last Sunday evening in surgery.
Credit…Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

This is what Prescott is facing after enduring the misfortune of a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle.

It was a stroke of atrocious luck for someone who had started all 69 games for Dallas since entering the league in 2016; who, betting on himself after declining a long-term contract extension, was on pace to shatter the league’s single-season passing record; and who had been willing to share his vulnerabilities, admitting to depression in the wake of his brother’s suicide in April.

It was an honest play, a football play, one without malice or intent. Other moments around the league might have looked worse in real time — Malik Jackson’s throttling of Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow in Week 3, A.J. Johnson’s sack of Jets quarterback Sam Darnold in Week 4 — but the recipients of those hits ultimately returned, having escaped serious harm.

The league’s most valuable players are its quarterbacks, but the measures it has taken to protect them — enforcing helmet-to-helmet hits, calling roughing-the-passer penalties, fining defenders for how they land on quarterbacks after sacking them — are by no means infallible. Prescott’s entire life changed because of a fluke play, much as Alex Smith’s did 23 months ago.

After enduring 17 surgeries and a compound fracture to his right leg so grisly that the traumatic aftermath threatened life and limb, Smith has emerged as the N.F.L.’s avatar for perseverance, a model for Prescott as he begins his recovery. A few hours before Prescott’s ankle folded on Sunday, Smith ran onto the grass at FedEx Field to quarterback the Washington Football Team, his first game action in 693 days.

Replacing the injured Kyle Allen — sidelined by a helmet-to-helmet hit from Los Angeles Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey — Smith told reporters after the game that it was “almost a blessing” that he entered with little notice. He didn’t have much time to think, for instance, when All-Pro tackle Aaron Donald clung to Smith like a backpack while sacking him. Watching, you might have gasped. Was his leg going to collapse again? No? OK, good. Fourth down.

“As fans, we’re able to push these things aside to move on in order for the larger goal, which again mirrors an American value: We want to win,” said Dr. Eric M. Carter, an associate professor of sociology and justice studies at Campbellsville University in Kentucky and the author of “Boys Gone Wild: Fame, Fortune and Deviance Among Professional Football Players.”

Credit…Brad Mills/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

“And I think the violence of the N.F.L. has just become so embedded that we don’t think about it anymore. As bad as the whole C.T.E. issue is, how often do most fans think about that on a Sunday? We don’t. That level of violence and hypocrisy of the N.F.L. has just become so normative that I don’t think we pay any attention to it.”

The very mechanism of football encourages fans to distance themselves from the humanity of the game. The league’s insistence on playing through the coronavirus pandemic has created an unnerving backdrop to this most abnormal of seasons. When a Covid-19 outbreak strikes the Tennessee Titans, or positive tests crash other teams, the impulse might be to fret about the impact on the N.F.L. schedule or to assign blame — on somebody, anybody — instead of focus on the short- and long-term ramifications of an insidious virus. Or when an offensive player lay writhing on the field, one’s thoughts likely turn toward fantasy football implications before his well-being, if at all.

Players have immense pain thresholds, but they also minimize injuries, if they bother disclosing them, out of fear, as well — fear of losing their jobs, their livelihoods, their sense of self. Smith couldn’t conceal the injury he sustained on Nov. 18, 2018, but he encountered those same emotions during a grueling recovery chronicled for entertainment purposes by ESPN in the documentary “Project 11,” wondering whether he would ever walk again, let alone run again, let alone play again.

Smith, remarkably, has accomplished all three. The prognosis for Prescott is favorable, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said in a radio interview Tuesday, and he should be ready for team activities in the spring. In the meantime, Jones added, he had complete confidence in Dalton. The N.F.L. trucks onward.

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