INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - They took a knee and prayed when Ryan Shazier went down in a heap and lost feeling in his lower extremities. It was all very solemn and heart-felt. And then they – meaning the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals – went out and assaulted one another without respect for the game or one another.
Clearly, the NFL can do more and should do more to stop the dangerous anarchy that has taken over America’s favorite game – heavier suspensions for the likes of Rob Gronkowski (more on him later) and the same targeting/instant expulsion rules we see in college football.
Ultimately, though, it comes down to the players, to mutual respect, to a mutual understanding that they are slowly killing their game and one another with the kinds of brutal headshots that made Monday night’s Steelers-Bengals game so difficult to stomach. The next time they talk about their brotherhood, I’m going to become violently ill.
But it’s not going to change any time soon, and here’s why I say that:
After the game, ESPN’s Lisa Salters asked Ben Roethlisberger, a man who has spoken openly about his fear of long-term brain damage from the game, “How would you explain the viciousness and brutality of this game?’’
He offered a wry smile. “AFC North football,’’ he said.
“That’s it?’’ Salters asked.
“Yup,’’ Roethlisberger responded dismissively.
It was a Cro-Magnon response to a perfectly legitimate question, a question that begged to be asked, and it opened our eyes once again to the fact it seems almost impossible to legislate the childish bravado out of the game.
It got worse later, when Pittsburgh receiver JuJu Smith-Shuster, the man who laid a brain-crushing blindside block on Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict and received a one-game suspension for his actions, was apologizing after the game while talking to reporters in the locker room.
As he spoke, several teammates chimed in, “Karma, baby. Karma.’’
The reference was to the fact that Burfict is viewed now as the dirtiest player in the league – he has the league fines to prove it – and in 2015, he laid out Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown with a brutal head shot, then stupidly suggested Brown was “faking’’ the concussion.
He had it coming. Karma, baby.
And yet, it’s not really surprising.
The more the league tries to legislate the excesses out of the game, the more it happens – which is unfathomable in a time when we’re learning more and more about CTE and the other long-term manifestations of violent conflict on the human body.
Later in the game, Brown caught a touchdown pass that tied the game, then miraculously held onto the football when he took yet another head shot from Cincinnati’s George Iloka who, by the way, has been suspended one game. I’m quite sure that if Brown hadn’t gotten up, if he’d been taken off on a stretcher, everybody would have surrounded him, taken a knee and prayed. Solemnly.
It’s fully understood that this is a violent sport, a collision sport, and its practitioners are fueled by testosterone and heaven-knows-what-else. It’s an atavistic exercise, much like boxing and MMA and, at times, hockey. The idea, to some degree, is to physically and emotionally impose your will on the opponent, and that approach often works. I can still remember a 2001 Colts game against the New England Patriots – it was Tom Brady’s first start – when linebacker Bryan Cox cleanly leveled Indy receiver Jerome Pathon as he came over the middle. The Colts wanted no part of it after that, and curled up into the fetal position, losing badly.
Now, though, we seem to be hitting a tipping point, a point when the players have to decide whether they truly want to protect one another from the kinds of hits that leave one another sitting in hospital beds, wondering if they’ll ever walk or think clearly again. (Understand, the Shazier incident was a normal-looking play – nothing dirty. But the results were – are – potentially calamitous.)
Of course, we’ve had these tipping points before, the result of some new injury or new finding regarding head trauma, and the result was: Nothing happened. The league tried to change the rules, make the game safer, but nothing happened. And nothing will happen now.
There’s a deep and abiding sickness in this league, and the only people who can save themselves from themselves are the players, the same players who were yelling “Karma, baby’’ in the Pittsburgh locker room.
One day earlier, became enraged by what he felt was a pattern of holding by Buffalo defenders, then responded, long after the play was over, by jumping on the Bills’ Tre’Davious White with an extended elbow, leaving him with a concussion. It was Jimmy “Super Fly’’ Snuka from the top rope. It’s one thing for these illegal hits to happen in the normal course of a football game, but this was an assault, the kind of anarchy that suggests the NFL is fully out of control.
Gronk, that lovable meathead, he said he was merely frustrated by a series of no-calls and he is now appealing his laughably soft one-game suspension. Honest, he should be sending commissioner Roger Goodell and the league an FTD floral bouquet to thank them, not appealing his suspension. On what grounds, for crying out loud?
Meanwhile, there was former Patriots quarterback and current radio host and cheerleader Scott Zolak, who saw the hit and said on air, "Good. Good for him. You’re going to hold [Gronkowski] the whole way?"
With some Patriots fans – and I said some – Tom Brady could open fire on a crowd in Faneuil Hall and fans would say, “Yeah, they had it coming. They hate us because they ain’t us."
This is the prevailing Pleistocene ethos in this league, and there’s nothing, it seems, the NFL can do about it. It’s up to the players to respect one another as men, as fathers and sons and brothers. Maybe they can all come together, just as they did after the Shazier injury, take a solemn knee and pray about it.
Just before they go back to trying to beat each other’s brains in.