Football fans have seen a myriad of vicious hits this season, some illegal and some not, as well as severe unsportsmanlike conduct from players. What they have not seen is the NFL take a stance on punishment against those players. Sure, some players have been suspended and others fined, but what the fans want to see is a precedent.
The National Football League has been a reactionary league for much of its existence. I am sure we do not want to get into the domestic violence messes that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell found the league embroiled in after Ray Rice and Greg Hardy. The NFL’s attempt to cover up the medical information about concussions and the effect that it can have on players is common knowledge. It took 20,000 players and a $1 billion lawsuit for the NFL to start taking this seriously. Now every hit we see where helmets touch draws at least one yellow flag to come flying in, and the NFL is considering implementing a targeting rule similar to the NCAA in the upcoming seasons.
Yet, somehow, the NFL keeps dropping the ball on player safety and this season has been no exception. We have seen multiple players suspended this year, some for fighting like Michael Crabtree and Aqib Talib, others for illegal hits not during play like Mike Evans and Rob Gronkowski. Rob Gronkowski dove onto an opponent who was on the ground and drove his forearm into the back of the player’s helmet causing a concussion. Evans, meanwhile, ran up behind Saints CB Marshon Lattimore and shoved him in the back knocking him to the ground. Evans and Gronkowski somehow managed to remain in their respective games incurring 15-yard penalties for their actions at the time.
Both these players gave Roger Goodell a clear and stable platform with which to stand, bring down judgment, and set a precedent that actions meant to injure another player would not be tolerated. Both Evans and Gronkowski were handed one-game suspensions and, after unsuccessful appeals, sat for one game. This is the first failure by Roger Goodell and it set a tone that would be detrimental as the season progressed. The illegal and dangerous hits that these two players committed should have netted them, at a minimum, a two-game suspension. One game leaves the possibility open of a fine and no time missed which is not a significant punishment and does nothing to deter other players from making the same dirty plays down the road.
During the Cincinnati Bengals/Pittsburgh Steelers game on December 3, two massive, illegal hits by Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and Bengals safety George Iloka brought down the gavel from the Commissioner’s office. Iloka clearly targeted the head of Antonio Brown, and although fans will argue that he was only trying to prevent a touchdown catch, the video is explicit showing Iloka lowered the crown of the helmet and made direct contact with the head of Antonio Brown.
JuJu Smith-Schuster’s hit, a severely physical blindside block, caused Vontaze Burfict to leave the game as a precaution. We all know that Burfict is no angel, but the hit that Smith-Schuster made was not intended to cause injury. He led with his shoulder and made hard physical contact; however, the fact that he stood over top of Burfict taunting him after the hit, coupled with the history of those two teams, led to a suspension. I understand the league suspending Smith-Schuster, granted I believe it was based more on the taunting than the hit itself. Where the mistake was made by the NFL is overturning a suspension of Iloka, who purposely attacked the head of another defenseless player, while upholding the suspension of a player who led with his shoulder but taunted his opponent after the illegal hit.
Then comes the Jaguars/Seahawks game this past weekend. With the clock winding down and the Jaguars in victory formation, Seahawks DE Michael Bennett dove at the legs of Jaguars center Brandon Linder in an attempt to cause a fumble. Now, I understand that this kind of play is frowned upon but it is not something that can be legislated out of the game. The league cannot tell players that they cannot attempt a play on the ball just because the opponent is preparing to take a knee. After failing to cause a fumble on the snap, Bennett rolled himself over the back of Linder’s legs in a clear attempt to injure him after the play was over. This blatant act could have easily caused multiple knee and leg injuries, yet when the league had a chance to come down hard and once again prove player safety a true focus, they punted. The NFL made a determination, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, that Bennett was diving for the ball and chose, not just to forgo a suspension, but declined to divvy out any punishment.
This is an absolute farce. Bennett, a Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award nominee, has been making headlines for close to a year as the active face of the National Anthem protests along with his claims of police brutality in Las Vegas, claims whose veracity was called deeply into question once footage of the incident was released. Roger Goodell has never minded throwing his judicial weight around against players; however, in this circumstance, Goodell seems scared of the public relations hit he might take from Bennett’s supporters and other players protesting the anthem and chose to do nothing. Roger Goodell wilted in fear that, by doing the right thing and suspending Michael Bennett for this disgraceful act against a player, that public perception will be this is a suspension by proxy for Bennett’s continued conduct during the National Anthem. This has always been where Roger Goodell is at his weakest. His shortsightedness towards issues happening in the league, and the manner in which he makes his choices to affect the here and now instead of the long-term preservation of the league, is why he does not garner any respect from the NFLPA or the public.
Roger Goodell was given a chance, a chance to be progressive and use his disciplinary power to set a precedent that illegal, dirty hits intended to injure another player, even during play, will not be tolerated. A two-game suspension should have been handed down to Michael Bennett, Rob Gronkowski, and George Iloka after the acts they committed against other players. Instead, Roger Goodell stays the same reactionary commissioner that he has always been and continues to cement his legacy as one of the worst commissioners in the history of the NFL.
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