NFL

Brutality of Steelers at Bengals shouldn’t be dismissed as ‘AFC North football’ Online News

You can love football and hate what happened Monday night in Cincinnati.

You can tune in for bone-crushing tackles. You can stand up and cheer when a running back trucks a linebacker. And, yes, you can still be repulsed by two plays that will hover over this game — and perhaps the NFL — for weeks and months to come.

This is not the time to argue, stubbornly and with fleeting merit, that football must be accepted as an uncontrollably vicious and unavoidably violent game. Indeed, it once was. But it can no longer be, at least not in the context we’re accustomed to. We know too much now about the long-term impact of brain injuries to simply tolerate the unconscionably directed hits that Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict and Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown absorbed in the fourth quarter of the Steelers’ 23-20 victory.

Burfict left the field on a stretcher to be evaluated for a concussion, the victim of Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster’s illegal block. Less than four minutes later, Bengals safety George Iloka drilled Brown’s face mask after a game-tying touchdown. The plays came amid the pall of a frightening first-quarter injury suffered by Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier, who was taken to a local hospital because of a back injury.

You can love football and hate what happened Monday night in Cincinnati.

Brutality of Steelers-Bengals shouldn't be dismissed
Brutality of Steelers-Bengals shouldn’t be dismissed

You can tune in for bone-crushing tackles. You can stand up and cheer when a running back trucks a linebacker. And, yes, you can still be repulsed by two plays that will hover over this game — and perhaps the NFL — for weeks and months to come.

This is not the time to argue, stubbornly and with fleeting merit, that football must be accepted as an uncontrollably vicious and unavoidably violent game. Indeed, it once was. But it can no longer be, at least not in the context we’re accustomed to. We know too much now about the long-term impact of brain injuries to simply tolerate the unconscionably directed hits that Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict and Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown absorbed in the fourth quarter of the Steelers’ 23-20 victory.

Burfict left the field on a stretcher to be evaluated for a concussion, the victim of Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster’s illegal block. Less than four minutes later, Bengals safety George Iloka drilled Brown’s face mask after a game-tying touchdown. The plays came amid the pall of a frightening first-quarter injury suffered by Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier, who was taken to a local hospital because of a back injury.

Both were well within their rights to initiate a high degree of contact. Smith-Schuster was trying to block a much larger man from tackling a teammate, while Iloka was trying to break up a touchdown reception. But whether by intent or simple lack of control, both players hit their opponents in the head.

When you combine their hits with the cheap shot for which New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was suspended one game on Monday, you realize that the NFL still has work to do to convince players to respect what must be a red line for avoidable contact to the head. The ask is simple: Do everything you can to minimize head shots. That alone won’t solve the issue, but it should be a minimum for any serious attempt to make the game safer for the brain.

That might be something players can handle among themselves over time. “We need to take ownership,” Bengals receiver A.J. Green told reporters. “We need to take care of each other.”

Maybe the NFL will assert itself to a greater extent. It’s possible that Smith-Schuster and/or Iloka will meet Gronkowski’s fate and face a suspension. But the point will not be to water down the game or take away someone’s manhood or earn credit by clutching pearls. It will be to preserve the vast majority of a game that many people love, at the expense of a level of savagery from which we can All stand to evolve.

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