The outrage over this incident is both understood and warranted. With his disturbing assault, Garrett could have hurt Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph badly. Even though Rudolph came away uninjured, the incident is still the ugliest brawl to occur recently during a major sporting event, and it’s one of the scariest physical confrontations in the history of athletics. So no one should be questioning the NFL’s decision to suspend Garrett indefinitely; for certain, he’s gone for the remainder of the 2019 season, and he must prove himself worthy of reinstatement after that. And everyone hasa right to scream as much as they need to while processing the brutality. For once, we are united in admonishing this particular wrong.
But as this story advances, as Garrett shows remorse, attempts rehabilitation and strives to move forward with his otherwise magnificent young career, a question will remain: Why?
Our disdain won’t answer that. Garrett will be sentenced, beyond suspension, to a lifetime of public condemnation. Even if he recovers and forges a Hall of Fame career, this chapter will be a major part of his story.
Nevertheless, there’s a chance something useful can come from this chaos, something more sophisticated than anger and vilification in perpetuity. So back to that question: Why? Or to be more specific, how can an athlete — one we would have put on a list of players least likely to transform into an unruly terror — lose all of his character in the heat of the moment?
The basic answer is that no player can be certain he is immune to the emotional land mines of football or intense competition in general. No league can be certain it teaches sportsmanship and polices the players well enough to have no concerns. But there’s a chance, if he takes it, that Garrett can realize some better, deeper and more beneficial truths about violence in sports, how players can make the proper corrections and what all sports leagues can do to be more enterprising and instructional in helping athletes manage their intensity.
Garrett isn’t just one of the last people we thought capable of this level of violence. It may sound strange, but he’s also one of the best people to have to rehabilitate himself. That’s because, in everything he has shown over the years, the former No. 1 overall draft pick has a mind that will want to find out why.
Now the resumption of his career depends on Garrett proving to the NFL that he can evolve and be better than the limits-testing defensive end who, before his shocking eruption, had been fined twice this season for illegal or dirty plays. If Garrett resists turning defensive — so far, he appears to be accountable and to understand the seriousness of his acts — and deals with the suspension in his usual, scholarly way, he will learn something about himself. And his natural curiosity will make him want to learn more. If he can be earnest and introspective and unafraid of any personal demons, his sin can turn into more than terminal shame.
“Last night, I made a terrible mistake,” Garrett said in a statement Friday after the NFL announced his suspension. “I lost my cool and what I did was selfish and unacceptable. I know that we are all responsible for our actions, and I can only prove my true character through my actions moving forward. I want to apologize to Mason Rudolph, my teammates, our entire organization, our fans and to the NFL. I know I have to be accountable for what happened, learn from my mistake, and I fully intend to do so.”
There is no defending Garrett. Nothing, not even numerous examples of his character, should allow him to escape all the scorn and punishment he is due. I doubt it will happen despite the speculation, but if Rudolph wants to pursue criminal assault charges, so be it. Garrett has to own every aspect of his rage.
We have all gotten good at anger and punishment, but few emphasize reform. Some people can’t reform, and some acts are so horrible that we don’t want them to be considered worthy of reform. Based on all we know about Garrett, it’s possible he can come out of this terrible situation a better, smarter and more restrained competitor. He can find out why and speak it to a greater audience, not just do the minimum for reinstatement. Let’s hope he chooses that path.
I keep thinking back to his fascination with paleontology. He loves dinosaurs, love fossils. He loves what they teach us about how the world used to be and how it evolved. He would rather talk about that subject than swim moves and sacks. In any conversation you have with Garrett, his analytical mind stands out.
Now we know, along with his charming side, there’s a darkness to him. Why? And is the answer personal or applicable to a larger sample of athletes? These are mysteries that we never resolve in these kinds of cases. After scaring football fans across the world Thursday, Garrett now has an opportunity, away from the limelight, to research and probe and educate.
First, he must address the rage within him. That’s enough to be welcomed back to the NFL next season. But if he’s serious about the “learn from my mistake” part of his statement, he will treat that rage like a fossil. He will study it. He will get help studying it.
Why? Not “why me?” Just, why?
Garrett may have destroyed his reputation and ruined the Browns’ chances to make a comeback this season, but the rest of him seems intact. As he waits to play again, he has an odd yet pivotal opportunity to prove this is true.