Stop Saying Duke is Eight Miles from UNC

Tonight Duke and UNC will play each other for the third time this season, and there’s a little-known fact about the two schools, a fact that’s definitely not brought up every goddamn time they face each other on the hardwood: The schools are merely eight miles apart. “Eight miles apart on Tobacco Road,” folks say, which is a very delicate way to describe the perpetually clogged lanes of 15-501. It’s a fact mentioned in pregame reports, postgame recaps, on Wikipedia pages and blogs–so many blogs!–like this one. It is part of the common parlance, part of the public record, the trivia that everyone knows such that it’s no longer trivia. It’s a joke I’ve made before on Twitter. It’s a stat I’ve spent the better part of two years trying to make a coy reference toward in Duke’s alumni magazine, where I work. And yet–

*cues 30 for 30 music*

What if I told you it was all a lie? What if we’d been inculcated over many years to believe–to trust!–a lazy statistic based on imprecise measurements?

What if Duke and UNC…were nine miles apart?

Sir, I just asked you if you wanted a Bo-Berry biscuit.

Forget the biscuit. Yeah, I said it–forget the biscuit. This is too important.

***

Google Maps is useful. It’s creepy as hell, and it remembers WAY too much stuff about bars I’ve been before and apartment complexes I’ve considered living to the point where it was almost impossible to get clean screenshots for this post…but it’s useful. And because of that utility, we’ll be getting quite familiar with it today.

On the site, you plug in two locations, and it gives you, typically, the driving distance between them. Do that with Duke’s stadium and UNC’s stadium and you get 10.6 miles. It’s parking lot to parking lot, Towerview Boulevard to Raleigh Road.

Cameron_Indoor_Stadium_to_Dean_E__Smith_Center_-_Google_Maps.png

But that’s not good enough. It’s confined by roads, calculated for grounded vehicles. What we want, though, is the distance “as the crow flies”–that, ostensibly, will give us the eight-mile number. If you right-click on your starting point, you can use a tool called “measure distance” to get precisely that.

Google_Maps 3

But time and again, we fail to get those numbers. If you start at the Duke Chapel and go to Chapel Hill’s Old Well–perhaps the two main touchstones of the campuses–you get 8.79 miles. Quad to quad is 8.6 miles. Stadium to stadium–Cameron Indoor to Dean Smith Center–is perhaps the truest metric when talking basketball, and it’s 8.85 miles.

Cameron_Indoor_Stadium_-_Google_Maps
I couldn’t get both stadiums to show up on the map, but I encourage readers to double-check for themselves. And, please, tell me that’s not nine miles.

Only if you draw from Duke’s stadium, on the southwest corner of its campus to the heart of UNC’s quad do you start to get values below 8.5. To such buffoonery I say, please, let’s try to have some academic rigor. It’s a slippery slope from that to, say, drawing from the edge of Duke Forest to UNC’s east campus, which gives you a tidy 5.79-mile distance between the two. Why stop there? Cameron Indoor to the city boundary of Chapel Hill is 4.92. Are the campuses actually five miles apart? Get out of here.

What we quickly realize is that any honest measure of the distance between the two schools is closer to nine miles than eight. Proper rounding dictates then that, by any estimate, these universities are nine miles apart. And yes–you’re goddamn right that this is a semantic post, but I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore!

***

Why do we say eight miles, then? I’d argue that any measurement under ten miles appropriately conveys the closeness of the universities. The cities of Durham and Chapel Hill are about 10.5 miles away, city hall to town hall, so any number closer than that is already icing on the cake. They’re so close that the team’s basketball coaches live and vote in the other’s county–K in Orange County, Roy in Durham County. How much closer does ESPN need them to be, in their prepared in-game graphic, to really get the audience to engage?

I’d even argue that “nine miles” sounds better, aurally, than “eight miles”–the assonance of the I’s livening the phrase, while also dodging any confusion about Detroit’s Eight Mile Road. Which is what, if we’re committed to using the erroneous number, we should really start calling 15-501, but I digress. 

The point is that “Nine miles” is a better statistic in every sense. So I don’t know if it’s laziness, or a lack of fact-checking, or both, that enables the wrong number to persist. It’s such a prominent stat that I don’t hold any hope of really changing minds with this investigation: BIG EIGHT MILE has too much clout to overcome. But I hope we can all be a little bit more mindful of these numbers when we quote them. In a rivalry where every number matters, where every showdown presents a chance to look back and show how close the two teams are over the last 100-some games, we don’t need to lie to say they’re physically closer than they are. 

So sing it. Sing “nine miles, not eight” from Franklin St., from Ninth. Sing it from Fullsteam and Top of the Hill. Sing it from the 15-501 overpass of I-40, right between the two campuses. Let your voice carry the message back to both, but sing loud: It’ll have to travel just a little further than you thought.

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Why is Duke so bad on defense?

There’s an article that gets written this time of year, right during the heart of conference play. Duke’s defense could be a problem–the header in an article from two days ago. Duke’s defense needs to improve by March–published the last week of January 2016. Defense continues to plague Duke after a devastating home loss in mid-January 2015. (Last year, the discussion was mostly about Grayson Allen’s incessant horseplay, but the Blue Devils did get torched badly enough by NCSU and Dennis Smith Jr.–again at home in late January–that Coach K ceremoniously banned the team from the locker room.)

So this is a pattern. More importantly, it didn’t always used to be this way. I’m too young to be nostalgic about ’80s and ’90s Duke–the hey-day of “pesky gym rat” defenders like Steve Wojciechowski–but I recall watching Shane Battier and Shelden Williams patrol the paint with authority in the early-aughts. I remember Battier covering so much ground during a 2001 Final Four game, his name called so crisply by Jim Nantz (“re-JECTED by Battier!), that I imagined myself as the M.O.P. during the next day’s dodgeball game. It didn’t make sense, but hey, at least it was an ethos.

Nevertheless, that’s anecdotal. Fortunately, KenPom.com has data going back nearly two decades, data which includes the adjusted offense and adjusted defense ratings (which factor in pace and opponent quality) for every team in the NCAA. Here’s Duke’s rank (with 1 being the best in the country) for each of the past seventeen years. Keep an eye on the year 2008, and see if you can figure out why it’s interesting.

Year

Offense Rank

Defensive Rank

2002

1

1

2003

13

15

2004

2

3

2005

13

2

2006

1

16

2007

44 6

2008

13 7
2009 7

28

2010 1

5

2011

5 9
2012 8

79

2013

4

26

2014

1

86

2015

3

11

2016

4

86

2017

6

47

2018 (through 2/8) 2

78

Did you get it? 2008–an entire decade ago–is the last year during which Duke had a better defense than offense. Every year since, including its championship runs in 2010 and 2015, the offense has led the way. The offense has never disappeared from the top-ten nationally, but the defense–especially in the last seven years or so, starting with the 2012 team that bowed out to Lehigh–has fallen off a cliff.

So why–and how–have things changed? There are a few culprits. Perhaps the most commonly-invoked explanation is Coach K’s adoption–or gravitation–toward recruiting “one-and-dones,” or top prospects who may only stick around for one year before jumping to the NBA. Duke’s first one-and-done was Kyrie Irving in 2011, so let’s split the data into two sets–2002-2010, and 2011 onward–and see how the numbers stack up.

Years

Avg. Offensive Rank Avg. Defensive Rank

Avg. # “One-and-dones”

2002-2010

10.6 9.2 0.0
2011-2018 4.1 52.8

1.4*

*Doesn’t assume any one-and-dones for 2018, although there will almost certainly be multiple.

From the year after Duke’s 2001 championship run up through its fourth championship in 2010, the Blue Devils were fairly balanced–the offense and defense were around tenth-best. Since then, they’ve become bipolar: The offense is typically top-five, but the defense is tiers below what it used to be.

It’s worth noting that this doesn’t mean the glory days are over, by any means. Duke has flamed out in the tournament a few times in recent memory, but their overall degree of success hasn’t been far from its previous level. As the below table shows, their win percentage is identical; they’ve slightly underperformed in the tournament while also being less consistent there.

Years

Overall Win % Avg. # of Tournament Wins

Variance in # of NCAA Wins

2002-2010

80.0 2.4 3.0
2011-2018 80.0 2.0

4.3

But back to the matter at hand: defense. I had a few ideas for the decline. A roster full of one-and-dones has some tell-tale characteristics: First, they likely have a number of superstars who are deserving of playing big minutes. Second, their depth is savaged each year as players jump to the NBA or, as has happened recently, they transfer to a program that can give them more playing time. (Since 2011, six top recruits have transferred from Duke; another, Rasheed Sulaimon, was dismissed from the program.) My first hypothesis–triggered by the Duke-UVA game this year in which the Blue Devil starters played all but six minutes–is that Duke’s starting five gets overused in games and tires, leading to decreased effectiveness on the defensive end.

I looked at the minutes played for each of Duke’s top five most-used players over the season–would the lineups stacked with top recruits be more imbalanced?

Not really. Duke’s recent lineups are fairly top-heavy–their five go-to players take up roughly three-quarters of all available minutes–but that’s not a departure from how Coach K has typically deployed his lineups. Moreover, the correlation between defensive rank and this measure of player overuse is practically zero (-0.014).

Years

% Minutes from Top Five Players*
2002-2010

74.3%

2011-2018

74.9%

*Straight average, not weighted.

I also explored how regular seasons have expanded since 2006–with a change in how multi-game tournaments are counted, teams now play 2-4 more games over the regular season. Perhaps this is another added cause for fatigue, but the change predates the drop-off in quality by a few years, so it doesn’t hold up as an explanation.

The second argument is that all freshmen simply don’t know how to play defense, the logic being that one-and-dones roundly take the place of grizzled upperclassmen who–while lacking a silky smooth offensive game–know how to scrap and claw on defense. I’ve always found this argument a bit weak: Anthony Davis, as a freshman at Kentucky, was a monster; Justise Winslow, while at Duke, had no problem shutting down opposing wings.

But perhaps these were the exceptions, I figured. I ran the same analysis as before, but this time looking at the percentage of minutes allotted to Duke freshmen each season.

Years

% Minutes from Top Five Players*

2002-2010

23.3%

2011-2018

35.5%

*Straight average, not weighted.

This is what we’d expect: In the new one-and-done era, more freshmen are earning playing time year-after-year, and fewer upperclassmen are seeing the court. But what does it mean for the effect on defense?

Duke def chart

It’s not a perfect relationship, but there is a trend: The more minutes freshmen play, the worse the defensive rating. (The correlation is .395.) This is a start, although it certainly doesn’t seem to be a silver bullet.*

*Let’s note that the one “good” defensive year in recent memory is 2015, Duke’s last national championship season. While their final defensive ranking was 11th, they entered the NCAA tournament ranked 62nd in that category before playing a solid (and somewhat lucky) six games against teams they were well-suited to stop (e.g., Utah, Gonzaga, and Wisconsin).

What I haven’t figured out, though, is why freshmen are worse defenders. My initial guess was that they foul more–and put the opposing team on the foul line more frequently–but in the eight full seasons for which we have this data, no trend shows up. (In fact, the correlation between freshmen minutes and opposing FT attempts is slightly negative.) We do see a clear relationship between freshmen minutes and opposing field goal percentage: The more freshmen play for Duke, the better the opposition shoots. (Correlation: .462.) But this is just a way of restating what we already know: The defense is worse when freshmen play because the defense is worse. 

There’s also the delicate question of whether Coach K has lost his fastball. If we zoom in on the 2002-2010 period, before Duke added its first one-and-dones, the defensive rating was trending in the wrong direction…:

Trendline

…while it was actually playing freshmen a little less frequently:

Trendline 2 - % of frosh minutes

There are many questions remaining: Why are freshmen bad defenders? Have rule changes–particularly a recent de-emphasis on charge whistles that Duke notoriously has tried to earn, combined with an increase in overall fouls–played a role? And why, with the extended preseason that the NCAA approved starting in 2013, hasn’t Coach K been able to crack this code? Does he not know how to *gasp* communicate with millennials?

I’m interested in another question, though: Seeing this trend, what would Coach K think of it? I’m struck by that two-year offensive dip in 2007 and 2008 which, really, is the only blemish on that side of the ball in the past two decades. I wonder if K simply grew weary of coaching players like Greg Paulus and DeMarcus Nelson–players who couldn’t get enough buckets to down a not-good VCU squad in the NCAA first round–and decided he needed more offensive ammunition. Although his roster for the next few years was laden with upperclassmen, he soon snagged Kyrie Irving and then Austin Rivers, two unbelievable talents. The defense suffered more, but the offense was fantastic, and Duke has never looked back.

If you have the same job for years on end, even hard-ass disciplinarians get to a point where they say, “Screw it, let’s have some fun.” Is that where we are now with Coach K? Given how frustrated he looks on the sideline when his team can’t grab a single defensive rebound, probably not.

But the trend is clear: This is the new normal. Duke isn’t a top defensive team–and hasn’t been for a while. Fans and commentators would do well to stop acting so surprised.

You Always Have One Job

My favorite kind of critic, typically a sports fan, is the guy yelling–at the TV, his wife, or the cab driver–”You had one job!” It’s such a reductive attitude to have, to minimize someone’s livelihood to a simple failure at a given task, be it not fumbling a punt, not burning a dinner, not driving off a bridge, etc. It’s wonderfully dismissive and belittling. It’s one of the rare ignorant comments that, in a tortured, tertiary vein, actually reveals a sad truth about our world.

That truth: We all, at any given point, are that person who only had one job. This isn’t some meta-statement about how we could be, if enough things broke against us in life, in such a disastrous position. No, we–the unspectacular underclass of society, myself included– perpetually are in that position. We all lack the security, the long-term benefit of the doubt, that will remove the possibility (or even the likelihood!) of some asshole yelling at us for the most inoffensive screw-up. Anyone who hasn’t felt that pressure of a looming “YHOJ” lobbed in their direction has never worked a nine-to-five or entered a relationship in which the slightest onus falls or could fall on them. “YHOJ” is brilliant for its universality: It is brusque, and yet, it carts a not-inconsequential ladle of sympathy. The man–it’s almost always a man–imparting the “YHOJ” is seconds away from being, too, victimized by the “YHOJ.” The first rule of “YHOJ” is that the “YHOJ” spares no one.

“YHOJ” is best deployed at the poles of importance–in situations of tremendous flippancy or severe gravity. Your friend’s computer dies when he’s trying to show you a “kinda funny” Jimmy Fallon sketch? You had one job! Your subordinate officer’s key witness in a triple homicide goes missing during the only ten-minute period he needed protection? Lieutenant–you had one job!

By and large, though, “YHOJ” gets abused as a way of release, a plaintive wail that has no hope of inculcating doubt or despair in its target. Mostly, “YHOJ” gets delivered indirectly, through some intermediary–a car radio, perhaps, or a flat-screen. The deliverer is dissatisfied with the individual who, clearly, had just the sole job in front of them; the messages makes that much evident. But the deliverer inevitably has a greater gripe: Himself.

You see, the deliverer isn’t happy with his lot in life. He is powerless; he deludes himself with the notion that he–even though the man certainly can’t do that job himself–can make sure that this other individual can successfully complete their task. If he focuses enough, like the one-job-having fellow should be doing with regards to their one job, then nothing can go awry. In fact, all the deliverer can hope for is nothing (nothing more, at least, in his ceaseless hellscape of a life) to go wrong. And when it does, well, he has no recourse but to tell the other–who briefly matches the deliverer in the size if not quantity of his failings–”YHOJ!”

Perhaps that’s the funniest part about it: The “YHOJ!” seems on its face to be befitting an alpha male, a declarative, full-throated dismissal of another. But it’s just a whine. The “YHOJ”–or its cousin, “Do Your Job”–only has significance when coming from a peer or superior. If my editor told me that on a mid-Monday, I’d be typing away like Hunter Thompson at 5 AM; if Bill Belichick (whose Patriots’ team motto of “Do Your Job” is literally trademarked) told a special teamer such a thing, he’d start sprinting faster than Boston ran away from busing.

The cry of “YHOJ” overwhelmingly falls flat not due to its content but because of the power imbalance, while simultaneously underscoring the power imbalance in play. The complaint tries to level the playing field–it puts the fan’s sole task of not getting piss-drunk at his in-laws on par with swatting a hail mary or dunking a basketball–and in doing so, unwittingly heightens the slope.

What makes the expression timeless, though, is that while the neutral observer can enjoy the one-directional exchange in this bemused context, the deliverer gets what he wants out of it. He airs a grievance. He shares his pain. The cry is raw and necessary. Therapeutic, even. In turn, its effect proves the recursive truth, that even “YHOJ” has but one job to do.

The wisdom of Roger Federer

A boring but useful way to think of tennis is as a two-sided risk assessment. My optimal strategy comes not so much from questioning how much risk I, a player, am willing to take on this shot, but by calculating the most pressure I can put my opponent under while not really gambling myself. Said another way, the smart player wants to find the easiest, safest way to ensure their opponent’s discomfort and eventual failure–and, thus, their own success.

Often, this easiest way coincides with boring tennis. In the Roger Federer – Rafael Nadal rivalry, a righty vs. lefty matchup, the natural strategic devolution culminated with Nadal rolling high forehands to Federer’s backhand, time and again, until Federer made an error or left a short enough ball that Nadal could then punish. For the majority of their careers, up until last year’s Australian Open Final, Nadal’s tactic was undeniably effective. And yet, aesthetically, it paled in comparison to Federer’s aggressive and innovative ball-striking.

One of the larger issues with modern tennis is that smart play does not coincide with engaging play. The ability to loop groundstrokes with heavy topspin, to pin the opponent behind the baseline with safe, parabolic forehands, makes defensive play optimal. The proverbial savvy players, by and large, are those like Nadal and Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, capable of chasing down most anything and content to pick their spots on the attack. The sagely defenders are generally fine with allowing their opponent to spray imprecise attacking shots that lose them the point or leave them vulnerable to a counterattack. In the long-run, the numbers are in their favor.

In contrast, the offensively-minded gamblers–Federer, Nick Kyrgios, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, etc.–can be impudent and reckless. But their style, because of its quasi-nearsightedness and disregard for optimality, comes across as endearing. Even more so than his twenty grand slam championships, I’d argue that Federer’s style defines him as the best to ever play. Nadal or Djokovic could surpass his haul of majors; what’s indisputable is that neither will do so with his on-court grace.

But in the 2018 Australian Open Final, Federer demonstrated something that’s in his toolkit, even if he prefers not to always use it: The percentage play. He was facing Marin Cilic, who belongs to a small cohort of players, along with Juan Martin del Potro, Kyrgios, and maybe Tomas Berdych, with a consistently bigger forehand than the Swiss Maestro’s. Indeed, an in-match graphic showed Cilic hitting his forehand 10% or so faster than Federer, while their backhands were coming off the strings at roughly the same clip. (I can’t find the exact numbers, but I’m pretty sure I saw this, even if my recall in the foggy haze of 5:30 AM.)

In the past, this velocity deficit hasn’t deterred Federer–even though it has been to his detriment. He lost to del Potro at the 2017 U.S. Open in part because he didn’t shy away from the big Argentine’s stronger wing, repeating the same mistake he had made in the 2009 U.S. Open against the same opponent. Federer is prideful, and he thinks his forehand–his best stroke–can hang with anyone’s.

Sunday, though, he changed it up. He routinely sought out Cilic’s backhand, taking his chances in patient, crosscourt backhand-to-backhand rallies. And in doing so, he hurt the Croatian. Cilic finished the match with 64 unforced errors. For whatever reason the detailed stats don’t directly track backhand UEs, but once we account for those on the forehand and double faults, we see that Cilic finished with 35 backhand unforced errors, and Federer had 24. It’s the same difference as they had on the forehand side (23 to 12), but Cilic did much less damage there: He hit twelve winners to Federer’s seven on the forehand wing–but just five to Fed’s three on the backhand side.

To put that in perspective: Federer’s forehand was minus-five; his backhand was minus-twenty-one. Cilic’s forehand was minus-eleven, and his backhand was minus-thirty. For the majority of the match, Cilic couldn’t make solid contact with his weaker groundstroke, and his second-best was worse than Federer’s second-best.

It wasn’t Federer’s prettiest championship–one could make the argument that he could’ve won in three sets and almost certainly should’ve won in four. But ultimately, the percentages tipped in his favor. It’s rare to see Federer’s opponent end the match with more winners (45-41); in fact, Cilic was the only combatant of the fortnight to pull off the feat. However, he did so in an error-ridden manner that lacked the precision necessary for ultimate success. The style he was playing was simply too risky.

Cilic can take solace, though, in posing enough of a threat that he forced the greatest player of all time to do something he considers anathema: Be boring. Or, to paint Federer in a more charitable light, he simply played smart.

An Appreciation for the Australian Open

The tennis season’s first major is its worst. The Australian Open has no real defining characteristics: It lacks the history of Wimbledon and the acerbic patterns, color and play, of the French Open; its hardcourt twin, the U.S. Open, has a monopoly on the glamour branding of tennis as showcase. Really, the Australian Open is the Other Major–both the youngest major and the one players have, throughout its existence, most commonly skipped. And for the American viewer, it’s the most inconvenient: The finals for both men’s and women’s singles will start, for East Coast fans, at the nightmarish hour of 3:30 A.M.

However, recently I’ve somewhat come around on the major for two reasons. First, the timing. For the finals it is, admittedly, awful: The European majors have it designed perfectly, where I can roll out of bed at 9:30 on both weekend mornings, flip on the telly (British for television), and pour myself coffee as warm-ups are just getting underway. Trying to wake at 3:30 A.M., of course, simply spells trouble for the rest of your day, while also hindering your ability to do anything remotely fun the previous night. I don’t need to belabor that point–you guys get me.

But the schedule during the rest of the tournament–especially the first week–works great. In the past, say, 28 hours, I woke up at 6:15 or so to watch the end of Nick Kyrgios edging out Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, went to work, watched the marathon Simona Halep-Lauren Davis showdown, went to bed, and then woke up at 6:00 again to watch the final set of Roger Federer’s win over Richard Gasquet. It requires planning, but it’s fairly manageable; plus, there’s something to be said for not wasting an entire day watching tennis–especially when, if you’re like me, that means frantically checking the score tracker at your office desk every thirty seconds. In fact, you’re being productive by sleeping, AND, by needing to wake up early, you’re transforming the rest of your morning. The hardest part of rising early is having a reason to do so; the Australian Open more than justifies the pre-dawn alarm.

More importantly, the major has perhaps the greatest element of the unknown. It effectively represents the start of the tennis season–since we last saw them, players have rehabbed injuries, developed new shots, committed to new workout regimens. Superstars from the previous year may have lost their form completely, or they need to scramble to regain their technique in the early rounds. The barometers used to seed and predict the tournament depend upon results from many months prior; they are notoriously inaccurate. This year, six-time champion Novak Djokovic comes in as the 14-seed. Last year, Federer topped Rafael Nadal in a heavyweight battle, but in the context of the tournament, it was the 17-seed besting the 9-seed. The seeding helps to create intriguing matchups early on, too: Federer and Tomas Berdych met in the semifinals at Wimbledon, but they faced off in the third round of the Australian Open.

Combine the weird matchups with the uneven forms that players find themselves in, add the oppressive midsummer southern-hemisphere heat, and wild things happen. In Australia, second-tier players–like Tsonga, Fernando González, and Marcos Baghdatis–make unprecedented and since-unmatched runs to major finals. Other stars, such as Federer and Nadal last year and Angelique Kerber in 2016, make statements about their form for the rest of the year. Sometimes players like Djokovic–in 2008, and more emphatically in 2011–announce their arrival for good.

The point, which I’m realizing more as I try to present old results in an forcedly thematic manner, is the Australian major, more so than its three peers, carries a sense of rebirth. The event ticks off another year, and it allows fans to indulge an eye to the future. It works, broadly, as an unveiling of both new talent and refurbished oldie-but-goodies. In all facets of life, there is no time to be more positive–and less negative–than the start. Good things are signs, and bad things haven’t had time yet to develop into patterns. That the Australian Open gives you, the fan, what you want to believe in–while simultaneously not foisting the bounds of reality and time upon your vision–is something. It may be pure naiveté, but that’s still something.

On the Steelers and the NFL’s flaws

The Steelers lost in the playoffs yesterday. There was a time when such an event would send me into a weeklong funk. That it doesn’t now can be chalked up both to my heightened age and my proportional apathy about sports–and relief that I don’t have to watch Tom Brady mince my team’s secondary for the umpteenth time next Sunday. But really, I think the loss to the Jaguars also laid bare some basic truths about football’s structure that warrant consideration.

Let’s start with the game itself. The most scintillating aspect of the Steelers yesterday were their receivers. Antonio Brown (2x), Martavis Bryant, and the versatile running back Le’Veon Bell all made tremendous touchdown grabs; Bell had a second score on a lateral where he caught the ball at the ten and made the remaining defenders look silly. From an aesthetic perspective, the Steelers shined yesterday: Pretty much every play they made was an overt demonstration of supernatural physical talent and coordination. It was–in combination with the Vikings’ dramatic last-second victory over the Saints–a day of football that reminds you that, oh yeah, football can be pretty fun.

So we’re all good, right? Well, even in that list of sterling performers were some insidious strains of the NFL’s flawed ethos. Brown was playing through a torn calf muscle that–although it didn’t hinder his bottom line–nevertheless seemed to affect him throughout. On the Steelers last drive, with them down ten with a minute to go and the game essentially out of hand, Brown wasn’t out there even though Bryant, Bell, and JuJu Smith-Schuster all were. He did what fans–and coaches, and owners–expect of their players, which is to play through injury. He played yesterday at “not close to 100 percent,” according to a source. But, the logic goes, that’s fine: The bill will come later. For now, he needs to do his job.

It’s a tortured philosophy. Players risk injury every game; when they inevitably suffer setbacks, they’re expected to risk further injury for the betterment of the team by playing before they’re ready–even though they’re endangering their future income when making such a decision. NFL contracts aren’t fully guaranteed; most players can be cut at little-to-no expense.

Bell, the inimitable running back and yesterday’s other star, has made airwaves with his upsetting of the apple cart that is the NFL labor market: He’s talking retirement, despite being 25, in the prime of a running back’s career. The reasoning? He played this season under the franchise tag–a one-year contract that, for superstars like him, represents wage suppression and a source of long-term instability. (A franchised player’s pay is the average of the top five paid players at the position or 120% of his previous pay, whichever is greater. For Bell, arguably the best in the league, such a sum won’t be close to his true market compensation.) The Steelers are threatening to hand him the franchise tag again, which means he must play productively and healthily for another year to earn the multi-year contract he deserves. Again, the player must sacrifice in the short term, with little guarantee–or likelihood–things will work out for him.

But the most uncomfortable element surrounding the NFL and the Steelers, though, remains the spectre of Ryan Shazier. Shazier, the middle linebacker who suffered a spinal injury six weeks ago and has just recently regained feeling in his legs yet is still wheelchair-bound, continues to maintain a positive disposition despite his condition. He’s shown up in the press box for multiple games; he spoke to the team at halftime during Sunday’s loss. Team members wore his shirt featuring the motto “Shalieve” before the Jaguars playoff game; a portion of the shirt’s proceeds will go to spinal research and The Boys and Girls Club of Western PA. Shazier in recent weeks has become a mascot, a Gipper-like figure for the team to rally around. Had the Steelers won, and even continued on to the Super Bowl, I have little doubt he would have been a Media Day staple.

What’s unfortunate, though, is that this storyline of esprit de corps almost allows the Steelers and, by extension, the NFL to turn a catastrophe into a branding mechanism. A disastrous injury–rather than sparking conversations about improving player safety, difficult discussions about whether and how inextricable elements of football’s violence can be eradicated–merely becomes a tangential movement, much like the blackballing of Colin Kaepernick for protesting police brutality somehow turned into Jerry Jones taking a knee for “unity.” Shazier’s paralysis feeds into a Rovellian blog post. A player, with his agency lost, transitions to a motivator for the betterment of the team. A man becomes a brand, and the league manages to shy away from any individuality and humanizing elements, or acknowledging–yet again–a blemish on its shield.

I don’t mean to blame Shazier for remaining positive, or for making T-shirts for this good cause. I’m happy–and amazed–that he’s able to turn a negative into some semblance of a positive like this. I blame the league, though, for being complicit in the aftermath of his injury, for not directly addressing the risks football poses for players and taking responsibility for them. On top of the other compensation disadvantages the NFL bestows upon its labor pool, NFL players on average have a career of 3.5 years, and the league’s average pay and minimum pay are the lowest among the big four U.S. sports. I’ve focused on stars in this post, but for the NFL’s second and third tiers, the situation is even more dire.

The solution or sacrifice can’t always come from the individual. The plights of three great players–Brown, Bell, and Shazier–all indict the system. Which means, quite simply, the system has to do better. I’d be lying if I said I was hopeful.

Five or six things I wrote in 2017

For Duke Magazine:

For Crooked Scoreboard:

For this blog: