The brutality of the NFL was on vivid display Monday night for those fans in attendance in Cincinnati or watching on TV screens across the country via the ESPN telecast. It was difficult and uncomfortable to watch.
The Steelers-Bengals game was played with a viciousness that once defined the NFL. The problem is, those days are gone. They should be long gone, in fact. The NFL cannot afford to be a platform for wicked helmet-to-helmet hits that once were celebrated but now are illegal. Too much is known now about the long-term repercussions of playing that way.
“It’s bad for football,” former NFL coach Jon Gruden, now the analyst for ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” broadcasts, said on the network’s postgame coverage. “There’s going to be some fines. There’s going to be some stringent discipline. Let’s just hope a lot of these men are able to get up tomorrow morning and move on with life. Some of this stuff got out of hand tonight. It’s very disgusting and disturbing.”
To the credit of Gruden and ESPN, they put the game in the proper perspective and context. They lamented and decried the on-field events Monday night rather than glorified them.
The game was memorable not for the Steelers’ comeback and their victory on a last-second field goal. It was memorable, and not in a positive way, for the injury suffered by Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier and for the illegal hits delivered by Pittsburgh wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and by Bengals safety George Iloka.
Shazier’s injury resulted from his own hit on a tackle. It was one of the standard hazards of the sport, although former NFL safety Charles Woodson spoke during the ESPN telecast of a player needing to protect himself by keeping his head up rather than lowering his head to deliver a hit.
Shazier was taken to a hospital, and Steelers executive Kevin Colbert took the unusual step of visiting Coach Mike Tomlin on the sideline during the game. There was hopeful news overnight, with Colbert saying in a written statement that Shazier’s injury would not require immediate surgery and that Shazier was continuing to improve. The league-owned NFL Network reported Tuesday morning that Shazier had some movement in his lower extremities. But everyone, including those on the field, was reminded of just how dangerous the sport is.
“You’ve also got to acknowledge it was probably difficult for a lot of men to stay focused and play with their brother laid flat,” Tomlin said at his postgame news conference. “That’s an element of ball as well. … Make no mistake. This is a tough game, a tough business, man. [No.] 50 is our brother. My thoughts and prayers are out to him.”
Tomlin said he, too, had found it difficult to focus on the game the remainder of the night.
“We care about that man,” he said. “We care about all the men. But that’s just a tough element of our game, one that we all understand.”
Yet seeing what happened to Shazier didn’t stop Smith-Schuster from delivering a brutal block on Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict.
It didn’t prevent Iloka from delivering an equally brutal hit on Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown on a touchdown catch.
Both hits were penalized. Smith-Schuster, who stood over Burfict after the hit, and Iloka also were suspended one game apiece Tuesday by the NFL, pending their potential appeals.
“He shouldn’t have stood over him,” Tomlin said Monday night. “Sometimes the detail of the hit and the nature of the hit, you look at the video and you coach off the video. Obviously we don’t want to be penalized. We want to play within the rules. We respect player safety. I can assess judgment on the fact that he stood over him. And that’s not how we play. That’s not reflective of the sportsman that he is. I’m sure he’s sorry for that.”
Smith-Schuster indeed issued an apology. That’s positive. That signifies an awareness by a young player that the game cannot be played the way it once was played. But it’s not enough. The next step is for such hits not to occur in the first place.
That is more easily said than done, of course. The game happens fast. There will be illegal hits delivered, at times, without vicious intent. Football cannot be made safe.
But it must be made safer than it is, safer than it was Monday night. The NFL only can do so much. The players — all players — must do their part as well.
Put aside, for now, whatever the NFL did or didn’t do in the past regarding head injuries suffered by players and the health consequences to players of the concussions they suffer. Right now, at least, the league seems to have realized that it no longer can be the sport it was in the 1970s. It no longer can be the sport it was even five or 10 years ago. The NFL has changed its rules, its disciplinary approach to illegal and dangerous hits, its procedures for identifying and dealing with concussions suffered by players.
The NFL likes to talk about the culture change that has taken place, about players self-reporting concussion symptoms and reporting teammates’ concussion symptoms. But the culture change also includes getting players to do whatever they can to avoid the sorts of hits that were delivered Monday night.
The league’s rule-making competition committee, of which Tomlin and Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis are members, issued a directive in the offseason that the most egregious and flagrant of illegal hits should result in the offending player being ejected by the game officials or suspended by the league, even for a first offense. There has been a series of suspensions this season for illegal hits. Burfict, a repeat offender, was suspended after an illegal hit during the preseason. Smith-Schuster and Iloka were added Tuesday to the list.
“There’s things in place to police this. … I think the game has changed. … Football is a physical sport,” Lewis said at his postgame news conference Monday night.
But players need to buy in totally. Most players seem to understand. That must become all players. They must police themselves on the field. They must change how they play. A postgame apology is not good enough. A suspension does not undo the damage done by the flagrant illegal hit.
There should be no locker-room talk that Burfict’s style of play justified the hit inflicted on him Monday. There shouldn’t be commentary by players (or fans) the next time a player-safety rule is enacted that the game is not what it once was.
That’s the point. It shouldn’t be. It can’t be.
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