A grimy football game can be fun, sometimes. Messy, brutal, even a little bit of dirty play can raise the stakes, or at least turn a game into a car wreck that can’t be looked away from. Steelers-Bengals was not fun.
With the pall cast over the night by Ryan Shazier’s terrifying spinal injury—later described as a spinal cord concussion—the last thing anyone wanted to see was that particularly ugly brand of AFC North football that these teams specialize in. But there it was, in the second half, tempers boiling over and players targeting each other’s brains.
Vontaze Burfict was taken off a stretcher and treated for a concussion after this block from JuJu Smith-Schuster:
Burfict, I don’t need to tell you, is the dirtiest player in the NFL. And he had managed to piss off the Steelers all night. Does that mean he deserves to have his brain turned to mush, his lifespan potentially shortened and his quality of life decreased? If you ask Antonio Brown, yes.
“Karma is in life,” Brown told reporters about Burfict’s injury. “You do the wrong things, you get the wrong things out of it ... What goes around comes around.”
Two years ago Burfict knocked out Brown in a playoff game, two months after Burfict had ended Le’Veon Bell’s season. Was that specifically what Brown was referring to? Or was it more Burfict’s general history of dirty play and endangering opponents? Does it really matter?
The cycle of retaliation came back around quickly. Four minutes after Smith-Schuster’s hit on Burfict, George Iloka went head-hunting on Brown:
Football is, inherently and by design, violent and dangerous. (Two other Bengals besides Burfict left the game with brain injuries.) There’s no getting around that. Just by being a fan, I’m admitting that I’m okay with it to some level. But there’s a line where it becomes unenjoyable, and last night’s game crossed that line.
Some players weren’t okay with it either. “We need to take ownership,” A.J. Green said. “We need to take care of each other.”
There’s something to that. NFL players are, even if on different teams, co-workers. They’re often friends. It’s a sorry thing that some are sometimes out there actively trying to injure each other, in ways that can have long-lasting and life-ruining effects. They owe it to each other, and, if Antonio Brown’s right about karma, to themselves, to look out for one another.
But they can’t police each other. Or rather, this—last night—is what that policing looks like. It’s enforcement. It’s punitive. It’s an escalating cycle of revenge. You take out our guy, we’ll take out your guy. And it doesn’t work. If it worked, if players feared retaliation, we wouldn’t see the dirty hits in the first place. But we still do. We always have.
If the players won’t police themselves, the league has to. If the NFL really wanted to stop this, it could instruct officials to be generous with ejections for headshots. It could issue suspensions that accurately reflect the seriousness of the actions. But a league where Rob Gronkowski gets one single game for concussing a prone opponent with an elbow to the back of the head after the play had ended is not a league that is declaring itself all too concerned with player safety.
I don’t expect anything to really change, because the NFL has largely covered its ass at this point, as far as business-threatening class-action suits go. And there are plenty of fans—maybe a majority?—who like this type of football, and would complain it’s gone soft if players like Smith-Schuster and Iloka were immediately ejected. All I’m saying is that I didn’t like watching this game, a feeling I find myself having more and more often.