Defending Myles Garrett

William Sullivan has written two columns excoriating Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett for his altercation with Pittsburgh quarterback Mason Rudolph (here and here).

I have been an off-and-on Browns fan since about 1950, and I am a Myles fan because of his character, work ethic, determination to excel, and respect he commands from his coaches and teammates, so I will not pretend to be neutral.

But my view of the altercation is rather different from Sullivan's.

The first point of difference is that Garrett's hit on Rudolph was not only clean, but, by NFL standards, positively gentle.  Rudolph released the ball milliseconds before Garrett tackled him.  The tackle consisted of wrapping Rudolph in a bear hug and taking him to the ground.  There was no hard hit, no body-slamming, no spearing.

Garrett was indeed flagged for roughing the passer a couple of times earlier in the year, but those penalties were largely the result of a decision by the NFL to tighten up, calling penalties on hits that were legal last year.  Myles has learned, as shown by his careful take-down of Rudolph.

After the tackle, Rudolph lost it.  He had had a terrible day, with four interceptions, and being sacked with eight seconds to go was too much.  It looks as if someone said something, and they tussled.  Rudolph tried to get Garrett's helmet off and tried to kick him in the balls.  Garret tried and succeeded to pull Rudolph's helmet off.

At that point, Pittsburgh players got between the two, and Garrett backed off, but still holding Rudolph's helmet.  The fight was over.

Then Rudolph came charging back into the fray, trying to get around his own players to punch Garrett.  Garrett defended himself, still holding the helmet.  One can quarrel over this action; it could be viewed as a full swing of the helmet, or it could be viewed a defensive block against Rudolph's punch with a hand that is holding a helmet.

YouTube screen grab.

The Pittsburgh players responded by wrestling Garrett down and punching and kicking him.  Rudolph, who started the whole thing and then renewed it after Garrett retreated, backed away, arms outstretched in an appeal to heaven to witness his innocence.  He looked to me like someone gloating because he had successfully trapped an opponent in an error and could now assume the sacred status of victim.

Watching the replay, my immediate reaction (and my wife will attest) was "somebody said something, and I bet it was racial."  That seemed like the Occam's razor explanation for what looked like a pointless confrontation.

After the game, Garrett apologized profusely.  He also declined to comment on what might have been said.  Rudolph continued to play the victim, and apparently, he contemplated suing Garrett for assault.  Wisely, he decided against this, because any jury, looking at the tape, would notice that Rudolph both started it and then renewed it after his opponent retreated.  In any assault trial, Rudolph would be the one convicted. 

The League, ever eager to step on its own feet, and without careful review, suspended Garrett indefinitely, with hints that it might be forever; suspended a couple of linemen for a game or two; and did nothing to Rudolph.  Later, it dished out 33 fines totaling $732,422, including $50,000 for Rudolph, which, for an NFL quarterback, is petty cash.

Garrett appealed the suspension, and at his hearing, he said for the first time that a racial slur had occurred.  (The news reports do not say when he said this occurred — during the first tussle or when Rudolph renewed the assault.)  The hearing was supposed to be confidential, so someone in the League office leaked it.  The League responded by saying there was no evidence to support Garrett and confirmed the indefinite suspension.

Here are some takeaways:

  1. The whole "assault with a deadly weapon" meme is overdone.  I will take instruction on this point, but football helmets are not lead weights; they are designed to diffuse impact.  In any case, it wasn't much of a swing, and, in my role as a Myles defender, it looked like a defensive block.  As others have noted, there is a rule about taking off a helmet and swinging it, and the action triggers ejection, not a criminal complaint.
  2. Yes, Rudolph said something, but both men deserve the benefit of the doubt on this one.  Whatever he said, Rudolph did not mean it as a racial slur, but Myles took it as one.  One can think of a number of expletives that would fit this category.
  3. Garrett deserves credit, not blame, for keeping quiet about what was said.  He tried to keep the situation low-key.  At the hearing, he used the slur as an explanation, but not as a justification, for his actions.  This was statesmanlike, and, for me, is an additional testament to his good character. That the League leaked simply confirms my (and most other people's) low opinion of management.
  4. The League reaction to Garrett's charge is that there is no evidence to support it. Spoken like a true pack of mealy-mouths! Nothing was said about actually looking for evidence. Cynic that I am, I am not convinced that the NFL wants to find the truth.
  5. Rudolph originally came across as a whiny brat, but, under the influence of time and Pittsburgh's PR people, has cleaned up his act by apologizing for his role and expressing respect for Garrett.

The bottom line is that this incident could be handled with minimum damage. The NFL should give both men the benefit of the doubt on what touched it off, give Garrett a limited suspension (I would go for four games, but make it six if you will), persuade the players and teams to reiterate apologies, regrets, and respect for each other, and close the books.

By leaving the suspension open, with the Sword of Damocles of a permanent ban hanging over Garrett, depending on Roger Goodell's whim, the League is leaving the wound open to further infection. But, as the aphorism says, "The simplest was to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies."

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