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Eisenberg: Zachary Orr's Safety Has, And Should Continue to, Come First


There's a popular notion that the lords of pro football don't care all that much about player safety.

People on both sides can argue about it until they're hoarse, but I'm not here to highlight that debate today. I'm here to point out that the Ravens certainly cared about Zach Orr's safety when their medical team discovered a rare and dangerous spinal condition while investigating another injury to Orr at the end of last season.

The last thing the Ravens wanted to do was inform Orr of the condition and suggest he probably should stop playing football because of the risk involved. Orr came out of nowhere to lead the team in tackles as a first-year starter in 2016. He was, at 24, seemingly on the cusp of stardom. Losing him would constitute a major setback for the defense.

But the Ravens did the right thing; honestly, the only thing any organization should do.

When their medical team raised a bright red flag, they prioritized the player's health over any on-field concerns, which, let's face it, aren't that significant compared to the prospect of ruining a young man's life. They told Orr he would no longer be able to pass a physical. They basically told him he shouldn't play. Orr got the message and had a smile on his face when he announced his retirement in January.

Generally speaking, there might be some merit to the notion that pro football doesn't always put player safety first. Whenever I hear the league float the idea of an 18-game regular season, I just shake my head. Sixteen games are already almost more than the players' bodies can tolerate. Eighteen would border on cruelty.

But if you're looking for an example of the sport caring about its players, the Ravens' response to Orr's stunning situation belongs at the top of the list.

Six months later, their resolve is being tested. Orr's story has taken a twist. I would encourage the Ravens to hold their high ground.

As you've surely heard, Orr, now 25, has announced he wants to keep playing. It's not that shocking. A freak situation knocked him out, but he's a talented football player and wants to play, get paid, have a career, etc., just like everyone else. He found a specialist who said he was not at risk any more than any other player, and now, as an unrestricted free agent, he's visiting other teams with that news in hand.

Some observers see a conspiracy, suggesting Orr gamed the system to free himself from restricted free agency, which tied him to the Ravens. I don't believe that for a second.

Yes, the league certainly needs to address this "retire and come back" loophole, which any player could use to escape a contract and gain free agency. But Orr is an upstanding guy who was ready to play in Baltimore for a long time until he was told he shouldn't. This is just how a unique succession of events has played out.

To say questions abound is an understatement. Has Orr's spinal condition changed? If so, should the Ravens pursue him even though they're probably irritated to have to do so? If not, is another team really going to allow him to pass a physical and get on the field? Should the league get involved?

If you're not a physician, and I'm not (don't even play one on TV), it's a bad idea to comment about who or what is right or wrong here. This is now a "doctor story" about fine points of medical science and different interpretations of different tests. I haven't seen the tests. Even if I had, I would never get in the middle and insinuate that I know what any of it means or suggests.

This much I will say: The Ravens have done the right thing every step of the way so far. It didn't make them happy, but they were proactive in putting Orr's health first. Yes, their first job is to field a winning team, but they also need to treat their employees responsibly, and in this case, they certainly did.

If there's still a shred of uncertainty about Orr's safety, that should continue to drive their handling of this situation going forward.

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