All eyes on the NFL: Browns' Myles Garrett could have killed a man on Thursday Night Football

On Thursday night, the underdog Cleveland Browns met the Pittsburgh Steelers.  And the Browns showed up, beating the Steelers 21-7 in a pretty decisive victory.

That wouldn't be big news, normally.  But at the end of the game, Browns defensive end Myles Garrett got into an altercation unlike anything I've ever seen in my decades of watching football.  With his team in a comfortable lead, and the Steelers on a drive that would have needed 90 yards to even put up "trash points" that would get the Steelers to within a touchdown with no time left to play in the game, Myles Garrett got into a physical altercation with Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph back on the Steelers' own 10-yard line.

The play: Rudolph dishes a screen pass to his running back, and Myles Garrett meets Rudolph in the backfield, wrapping him up, spinning and wrenching his body to the ground with authority. 

To understand why the initial fight took place, you have to know football.  In the replay, announcer Troy Aikman said, "Rudolph didn't like the way that he was tackled," so the quarterback began to angrily try to wrestle Garrett off of him.  Aikman's characterization isn't an altogether accurate way to put it, though.  The object of football is to "tackle" players who possess the ball.  Rudolph didn't like being aggressively hit and wrangled to the ground while not possessing the ball.

At this point, the altercation between Garrett and Rudolph could very well have been a misunderstanding.  It's possible, even likely, that Garrett didn't see the quick delivery of the ball, and assumed that his efforts were to sack the quarterback, not to aggressively pound Rudolph into the ground after he'd released the ball.

But as they were tussling on the ground, they both began wrenching at the other's face mask.  Anyone who's ever wrestled or fought anyone knows that controlling your opponent's head is central to the engagement.  So this is a natural inclination, and we see it often in football altercations.  However, Myles Garrett, being on top and physically much stronger, actually managed to rip the helmet from Mason Rudolph's head and was able to get up.  Rudolph, still being angry, pursued Garrett as other players were trying to get in between the two.

YouTube screen grab.

Again, we see this sort of thing regularly.  Where this became very different and far more dangerous than your typical football scuffle is that, during the entanglement, Myles Garrett actually reared back and attempted to windmill–tomahawk slam the helmet he was holding on top of Mason Rudolph’s exposed skull with furious gusto.

YouTube screen grab.

I watched this with absolute amazement and fear.  The first question that went through my mind was not whether I almost just saw an NFL player get killed.  That much was obvious — I did just see that.  The question that first occurred to me, right or wrong, was whether or not I almost saw someone get murdered on an NFL field.

I've never seen anything like this at any level of football, much less the highest level that professionals can achieve.  However angry you are, any football player who's ever played at any level knows that that swinging a helmet at someone's exposed skull like that can paralyze or kill him.  Garrett may not have been thinking about that in the heat of the moment, but he knows it, and has always known it, instinctively.  And he still did it. 

As you can imagine, social media has erupted in controversy, and you can expect that it won't stop with divergent commentary about this incident.  As you can also imagine, this suddenly became a racial issue for some on social media.  Announcer Joe Buck immediately called Garrett's actions "barbaric," leading to some on Twitter to suggest that "Garret [sic] overreacted, but that narrative is inexcusable and casually racist."  "Who knows what triggered that," wonders Twitter user R-Holla.  "Something very unacceptable could have been said."

Such is the ridiculous nonsense that exists on social media, and I become increasingly convinced that social media exist only to get our hackles up.  Here in the real world, the NFL has a serious problem with this, and it has a choice to make. 

Imagine that Rudolph actually did die from Garrett cracking his skull with the helmet he ripped from his head, or that the helmet found a spot on his head that might paralyze him forever.  The NFL is likely thanking its lucky stars that it didn't — not only for Rudolph's sake, but for its own.  It would be already scrambling to endure lawsuits and planning to defend against the most aggressive media campaign against its brand that has ever existed — and that's saying something.

Michael Irvin, in the post-game commentary, put it well:

In a league, where you're trying to mitigate and watch injuries, especially head injuries, where you suspend guys for helmet-to-helmet, I don't see how you can let Myles Garret play any more football this year.  After snatching a helmet off his head, and swinging it with that ferocious hit … I know the League, they have to come down, they have to come down heavy, to send a message that this is never to happen again in football. [emphasis implied]

He's right.  But the only question for the NFL is, what is the right move?

Now that the dust has settled a bit, I feel for Myles Garrett.  He's an incredible athlete, and has undoubtedly worked hard to enjoy the privilege which he enjoys that is far beyond the millions of others idolizing him and seeking to follow his example.  But the fact that millions are watching and idolizing him make me feel all the more curious as to how the NFL will handle this.  Will they give him a five-game suspension and a fine?  Or, as Irvin (probably correctly) suggests, will they suspend him for the season?

Is that enough?  Or is expulsion from the NFL warranted, in order to set the precedent that nothing like this will ever happen again without the severest recourse?

I think I'd opt for the latter to cure my company of the specific liability Garrett has proven himself to represent, and also to deter any such behavior in the future.  But far be it for me to tell the NFL how to run their business.  The only thing that I know is that the NFL will likely have a lingering problem with whatever course of action it takes.  And the NFL is no stranger to those circumstances.

Your move, Roger Goodell.  And good luck.

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