Rob Gronkowski is one of the most watchable players in the NFL with his combination of juvenility and burliness, those wood-axe forearms and that hair that looks like it was moussed with last night's beer. If there was a mean streak in him, it was undetectable before Sunday, when he suddenly helmet-stabbed a defenseless player lying face down on the ground. Nevertheless, he should have been suspended for multiple games. The NFL has made examples out of lovable poster boys before, for far less.
All of the stupidity and incoherence of the league's so-called "disciplinary system" has come home to roost. What are Roger Goodell's broad powers and harshest penalties for, if not something like this? In Deflategate, Tom Brady received a four-game suspension over a whiff of air in footballs. In Bountygate, players were given suspensions ranging from six games to an entire season for targeting. Yet Gronkowski got just one game for an act of violence so out of bounds that if it had occurred on a city street he would have been handcuffable.
The optics are awful. There is no whitewashing what Gronkowski did, no writing it off as boyish foible. And there is no characterizing the NFL's disciplinary "system" as anything but an unprincipled mess. The hit Gronkowski leveled was a breathtakingly gratuitous act of brutality. The New England Patriots were leading the Buffalo Bills 23-3 late in the fourth quarter when rookie cornerback Tre'Davious White outmuscled Gronk to make a leaping interception. The play was over, and White was lying prone on the sideline, when here came Gronkowski launching his rock-quarry body at full speed, with his forearm fully weaponized. He delivered it to the back of White's helmet, driving it into the ground so hard that the man is being treated for a head injury. So much for "culture change" in the NFL and its concern over the concussion crisis.
Gronkowski's apologies, explanations and excuses are disingenuous nonsense. There were a lot physical unpenalized exchanges with White throughout the game, he said afterward. "I was just really frustrated at that moment," he said. "He was trying to push me a little bit . . . I just don't understand why there wasn't a flag a couple times in the game. . . . I mean, like what am I supposed to do?"
Manage yourself, that's what. Gronkowski is not paid $54 million over six years to lose control but to maintain control — to control his body and his temperament. The NFL is not a game of violence but rather a game of real violence averted. All of its rules are geared toward that restraint. Otherwise it's just fighting.
It's important to re-stress two things: The hit came after the whistle, and with White already lying on the ground out of bounds. It's one thing to deal out an illegal hit in the course of play, to reflexively lower a helmet and meet a hurtling opponent within the lines of the field, or to deal out unnecessary roughness head on in the continuation of a play. This was a different category altogether. It was deliberate, vengeful and intended to inflict maximum harm on an immobile body. All of Gronkowski's excuses pale in the face of the replay, which show it to be no mere, ordinary act of frustration. It was calculated, ego-driven retaliation against an opponent who couldn't have been more defenseless or still. Worst of all, it was a shot to the head, when Gronkowski knows full well that concussions can lead to long-term neurological problems, even fatal disease.
Yet the NFL declined to throw the book at Gronkowski, settling instead for the minimum it could levy without appearing totally callous. NFL Vice President Jon Runyan wrote in a tepid disciplinary notice that "Gronkowski's actions were not incidental, could have been avoided and placed the opposing player at risk of serious injury." You think?
What's the message here? It's that the rules are totally meaningless, and precedents don't mean a thing. Goodell will fight to the brink of the Supreme Court for his right to police "player conduct," spend millions on lawyers to enforce a player suspension despite a total lack of evidence. He will play cop on domestic assault cases, for the sake of image, or quieting public outcries, or pandering to various owners. But in the case of an overt unacceptable assault on the field — the one issue on which he should exercise his full, broadest authority — he is nowhere to be seen or heard.
Deflategate, according to Goodell, was about conspiring to subvert the rules. But what NFL rules could matter more than those governing violence after the whistle? If Gronkowski's hit is no big deal, if it's only worth one game, then which rules do matter? Seantrel Henderson got 10 games for using medical marijuana. You can hit a man in the head or the back when he's down in this league, but try to kill the pain with a little cannabis and it can cost you a season.
Goodell continually cites "conduct detrimental" to the league in his disciplinary actions. This was one instance in which the commissioner would have been justified in using his unfettered draconian powers to issue a multigame suspension. It's hard to think of anything more detrimental to the NFL, anything more undermining of league integrity, than such a blow.
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.
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