The Despicable Game
Late in the 3rd Quarter of Saturday’s AFC Wild Card Playoff game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals, the Bengals were driving and had a 3rd and 9 from the Steelers’ 23-yard line. Bengals quarterback AJ McCarron threw a short pass underneath to running back Giovanni Bernard. As Bernard, who had caught the ball facing his quarterback, turned upfield, Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier, violently leading with his helmet, blindsided Bernard, spearing him in the head. Bernard, seemingly out cold, dropped the football. As the play was whistled dead–the officials had ruled the player was down–the Steelers picked up the ball and ran towards the end zone.
While CBS showed a replay of the hit, a fracas broke out on the field–Bengals running back Jeremy Hill, likely enraged at the fact that the Steelers had the gall to engage in and celebrate such a vicious hit and emboldened by the heated relationship between the AFC North division rivals, was somewhat reasonably upset, and challenged several Steelers. Players from both sides flooded the field, and broke up the potential fight. CBS, cutting back and forth between the injured player and replays of the hit, called in their officiating expert. Describing the hit as “unfortunate”, he deemed the play legal because the receiver wasn’t “defenseless”.
Bernard was finally helped to his feet two minutes after the play, and began to walk toward the sideline; the cameras immediately cut to Shazier, arms raised signalling “touchdown”. The Steelers challenged the play. Play-by-play announcer Jim Nantz and Analyst Phil Simms, while repeatedly watching replays of Bernard being violently jarred with a helmet to helmet hit, never mentioned that the player dropped the football because he was knocked out, and instead observed that the play was clearly a fumble as they praised Shazier’s speed and described how, because the whistle was blown, even if the Steelers won the challenge they would be awarded the football at the spot the ball was recovered.
After review, the ruling on the field was overturned. Cameras cut to Shazier on the sideline signalling first down for the Steelers. And then, having just knocked someone out cold with a hit that, if not illegal, definitely should be, repeatedly engaging in some sort of celebratory dance, a body wiggle he presumably thought was cool, as teammates approached him and congratulated him. The announcers chose not to acknowledge the paradox that a man who just knocked another man out seemed completely unaffected by that fact, and was celebrating it. Instead, they cut to their sideline reporter, Tracy Wolfson, declaring Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict was “out of control” and describing him as having been “all fired up” before the game. Nantz thanked her for the “great heads up”, described precautionary measures the league was taking to limit violent conduct in the game and wrapped up his statement by saying that “you could hardly imagine there won’t be some other incident before the game is over”.
Immediately after the ensuing play there was another interruption, as Burfict and a Steeler scuffled. Fans in Cincinnati started throwing water bottles onto the field. Two plays later, Burfict sacked Steelers Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, violently–legally–driving him to the ground and injuring his throwing shoulder. As he was carted to the locker room, fans cheered and threw bottles at the Steelers star.
Things seemed to calm down as the Bengals came back from a 15-0 deficit to start the 4th Quarter to take a 16-15 lead with under 2 minutes left to play as the Steelers struggled without their starting Quarterback. On cue, Steelers backup Landry Jones threw an interception to Burfict deep in their own territory, seemingly ending the game. The Bengals needed just a first down to seal it. But Jeremy Hill fumbled and turned the ball back over to the Steelers on the Bengals next play from scrimmage.
Roethlisberger returned, bum shoulder and all, and drove the Steelers past midfield. On first down from the Bengals 47 with 22 seconds left in the game, he dropped back and threw a pass 15 yards downfield toward Receiver Antonio Brown as he had cut in-field on a hook route. He jumped to try to catch the football, but the high throw glanced off his fingertips. After Brown landed, eyes still on the football that had eluded him, the Bengals’ Burfict, running across the field directly toward Brown, nailed the receiver in the helmet with his shoulder. Brown fell hard and his head whipped around violently and snapped to the ground. The officials threw a flag for a personal foul, a 15-yard penalty that put the Steelers into field goal range. Somehow, a few Bengals surrounded the refs and appeared to argue the call, numb to the Steelers receiver lying barely conscious yards away.
Thankfully, this time Nantz and Simms lamented the hit, deeming it “flagrant” and “out of control”. Cameras showed Burfict glass-eyed, sheepish and seemingly embarrassed. As the announcers talked about how Bengals coach Marvin Lewis had failed to keep Burfict under control, the broadcast cut to the Bengals surrounding the officials again and arguing with them. When the dust settled, the officials announced a second personal foul against the Bengals, this one against Pacman Jones.
It seems that, as Brown was being helped off the field, Burfict reached an arm out to him and patted him on the shoulder in what appeared to be an apologetic gesture as the Steelers staff walked Brown through a group of Bengals. One of the staff members aiding Brown shoved Burfict away, and then continued to help Brown off the field as Joey Porter, a former linebacker and current outside linebackers coach of the Steelers hung back. Replays later showed Porter smiling and talking trash, encircled by Bengals, with officials trying to break up the scuffle and Jones rushing in late to try to put his hands on Porter before being restrained by officials.
The penalty gave the Steelers another 15 yards, and what would have been a 2nd and 10 with 18 seconds left from the Bengals’ 47-yard line turned into a field goal attempt from the Bengals’ 17. The Steelers kicked the field goal and won the game 18-16. Afterwards, sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson tried to interview Ben Roethlisberger, who repeatedly responded to her questions with variations on “we won the game, that’s all that matters” before Steelers coach Mike Tomlin dragged him off the field. Replays showed Marvin Lewis talking with a still glass-eyed Burfict, and Pacman Jones crying on the bench.
Nantz and Simms came around to lament how the game had descended into a something of a brawl. “It’s sad… we knew coming into the game that anything you did was gonna be watched closely, and the officials… they tried to keep control of this game”; “Can it get any worse?”; “There’ve been a couple of times tonight we’ve wanted to use the words disgraceful”; “There’s four or five moments here in the last minute of the game that you just shake your head and you can’t believe it”; “A vicious, violent game it was”. But they spoke in exceptionalist terms. Never once did they comment on the fact that everything that happened was endemic to the sport as it’s currently played.
The spectacle was a surreal trainwreck; the behavior of the players, coaches, fans, and announcers was deplorable. The whole thing was an embarrassment to the Steelers and Bengals organizations, the NFL, the networks that cover it, and the large swaths of American culture that prop up the sport. Worse, the culture around football is so toxic that the events felt routine. What is most striking isn’t the violence–the scrapping, arguing, and fighting that regularly continues after plays and during stoppages, the life-threatening hits, and the hateful, sectarian mentality that underpins it all. It’s the the defense, celebration, and glorification of it. In this instance, it took a second dangerously violent incident for coverage to turn negative, and the only real differences between the two hits were that Burfict’s was deemed illegal and thus was detrimental to his team, and that it came after the first one and could be considered retaliatory. The violent intent was the same. Explicitly celebrated by coaches, players, and fans, and implicitly encouraged by an America that holds the sport in such high regard. That the culture rewards and encourages such senseless violence toward any end–especially an end as hollow as winning a corporate game–is a travesty.
For all of our supposed self-awareness in the digital age, after all we know about the danger of head injuries, and after all of the hatred, violence, and turmoil our country has suffered through, America’s “greatest” expression of sport is still one group of men systematically and aggressively pummeling another, and then wildly celebrating the most violent of those pummelings. There is no way that doesn’t have an impact on our culture, on the fabric of our society. America has a gun control problem, but America also has a linked violence problem that exacerbates the gun control issue. America has a racism problem, but the violent, aggressive elements in our culture–taught and reinforced by the lessons of football–empower perpetrators and victims to act out.
There are many reasons I have come to find football difficult to watch. But more than anything, what makes it so off-putting is that it is emblematic of so many of our society’s gravest ills. Football and its popularity is not just a blight on America, it’s a key cog in a cultural feedback loop that both teaches and reinforces aggression, hatred, violence, and misogyny.
And yet we watch. In doing so, we are complicit in the perpetuation of the hate and violence that continues to haunt our nation.