If you were only to watch Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes’s immediate reaction to the hit that knocked him out of Sunday’s playoff game, you might come away with some assumptions about how the preceding play unfolded.
While Mahomes struggled to get to his feet, wobbled in place, and was held up by one of his teammates, he looked very much like a man who had just taken a direct, violent blow to the head. But watch the hit a few times, and what will stand out is just how innocuous it was.
See if you spot the exact moment during that tackle in which Mahomes was concussed. Was it when Mack Wilson’s helmet collided with his shoulder pad? When his head didn’t quite hit the ground? When his neck was briefly wrenched forward?
It’s an impossible question to answer, and if that seems strange it’s only because of how much work the NFL has put into making it appear as though brain injuries in football are consequences that can be traced back to specific, discrete actions.
That dynamic played out over the course of this very game. The dangers of the sport briefly became a talking point earlier in the contest, when Chiefs safety Daniel Sorensen led with his helmet and knocked the ball out of Browns receiver Rashard Higgins’s hands through helmet-to-helmet contact. The announcers discussed the officials’ failure to penalize the hit, and the broadcast made time for rules analyst Gene Steratore to explain why the hit was illegal. By spending so much time talking about the dangers of “leading with the crown” and designing new rules to outlaw “targeting,” the league is able to ground all conversations about brain injuries on the few easily identifiable violent instances that can, most importantly, be legislated against.
It takes a hit like the one Mahomes suffered to re-establish the truth of the matter, which is that there are infinite ways for football to damage the brains of the people who play it. It is not just a safety launching his helmet into a receiver’s temple that makes the game dangerous, but all the mundane actions that pass as little more than background noise over the course of a game. There was no moment of irresponsibility or act of unsanctioned violence to hold up as the reason for why the best quarterback in the NFL was being sent into concussion protocol. There was just football, doing what it does.