On every snap of every NFL game, players risk their careers and well-being. The game, by its very nature, shreds ligaments and snaps bones and damages brains, sometimes strikingly and sometimes imperceptibly. Lives change every Sunday because of what the sport does to those who play it. NFL football at its core is human achievement at the cost of human suffering.
The inherent violence of football is what made the calculated violence of Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett on Thursday night an affront so shocking that the league suspended him indefinitely Friday. The game is built on sanctioned brutality, but within those parameters lies an agreement between players. They may destroy each other but not on purpose and not outside the mayhem that happens during plays. It is a gladiatorial contract that should make you wince, but it is an understood agreement participants enter with full understanding.
When Garrett ripped off Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph’s helmet and clubbed him with it in the dying seconds of Cleveland’s victory, he committed an egregious act that will follow him for the rest of his career and violated the unspoken players’ pact on which a sport of such relentless violence relies. Garrett’s assault should not be excused on any basis, such as Rudolph’s provocations that appeared to include his own tug of Garrett’s face mask or how a good man momentarily snapped. It should especially not be excused on the premise that it was just more violence heaped onto a violent sport.
Rudolph already had risked himself on every snap Thursday night, taking hits that could have torn his muscles or rattled his brain — he has been knocked unconscious this season. Had Garrett connected with Rudolph’s head differently, he could have maimed or killed him. Garrett put Rudolph at an unnecessary and enormous risk well beyond those that accompany the sport’s pervasive viciousness. That was the most shocking aspect.
Look at how other NFL players, the people who understand and accept workplace circumstances the rest of us can barely fathom, responded to Garrett’s helmet swing.
“Assault,” former linebacker James Harrison said.
“Insanity,” defensive end J.J. Watt said.
“Barbaric,” former quarterback Troy Aikman said.
“Absolutely ridiculous,” former quarterback Derek Anderson said.
“He could [have] killed him,” Hall of Fame wide receiver Andre Reed said. “In the 17 years I played in the NFL, never been more disturbed by the end of a game.”
The league clearly sees the severity of Garrett’s attack. He is suspended for at least the remainder of the season as well as the playoffs. The only debate is how much of next season he should miss. The NFL suspended repeat offender Vontaze Burfict a dozen games for a head-to-head hit this year. Garrett has been flagged for typical offenses such as late hits and personal fouls, but he is not in the same universe as Burfict as a recidivist. Still, his punishment could meet or surpass Burfict’s. It would be justified.
Garrett’s initial response did not help his case for relative reprieve. He said that “a win is a win” and that eight seconds do not overshadow the rest of the game. He is, of course, woefully mistaken. Garrett was a famous football player before Thursday night, a former first overall pick known by some for his interest in poetry and dinosaurs. Now he is an infamous American, a player known for ripping off a quarterback’s helmet and swinging it at him.
There is room for sympathy for Garrett. He will be defined by his actions Thursday night, for losing sight of the line between his sport’s violence and the madness that lies not far beyond. He would not have been a prime candidate to commit one of the most notorious moments in NFL history. Defensive end Chris Long created a charity called Waterboys that builds clear-water wells in areas of need in Africa. When he retired, Long picked an active player to become the face of his efforts. The man he chose was Garrett. He seems like a good man. To much of the American viewing public, he appeared to be something else Thursday night.
Garrett deserves this suspension, however long it may last. The NFL is far from a wholesome pursuit, but it cannot tolerate what Garrett did. NFL players sign up to be battered by their peers, but even modern madness has lines. Garrett crossed one, and it will haunt him and the league for a long time.