Honestly, what is more difficult to watch: An NFL player on his knee or one laying motionless on a stretcher?
NFL ratings are in the toilet this season, and some will have you believe that double-digit declines in viewership on Thanksgiving, a day explicitly reserved for family, food and football, is because of players kneeling for the national anthem.
The same crowd will point to some fists in the air during “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the most significant factor in the steady decline of NFL TV ratings this season, but they ignore the violence of the game as a reason why 1 million fewer fans tuned in to watch Week 11 games this year than they did a year ago.
While offended football fans, on both sides of the anthem debate, have said they are boycotting the NFL this season, either because they are upset Colin Kaepernick is being blackballed for his politics or because they are disgusted by the sight of peaceful protest of police brutality, it’s impossible to ignore the carnage of the game may be pushing some people away, too.
Observers have long felt that the violent nature of football will eventually lead to its demise just like the violence of gladiator fights led to the end of that form of entertainment, too.
It’s gotten to the point where the national anthem is no longer part of some football telecasts because it has become so polarizing, but the violence of the game cannot be hidden, and it was there for all to see Monday night when the Steelers and Bengals engaged in a game that was more like a street fight that left several players mangled.
President Trump likes to tweet that football fans are turning the channel over politics, but he ignores the fact that maybe some fans are just fed up seeing football players assault each other. Focusing only on anthem protests distracts from mounting evidence that football is hazardous to your health, but the violence and lack of respect between players in Monday night’s game was so clearly evident that even one of the game’s biggest fans could not ignore what he was seeing.
ESPN’s Jon Gruden called Monday night’s performance “disgusting and disturbing.”
Well before Boston University doctors found this year that 110 of 111 football brains they examined showed signs of the degenerative brain disease CTE, the worst nightmare for football players was suffering a spine injury on the field. Before concussions were a concern, young football players were forced to watch the video of Marc Buoniconti suffering a neck injury that left him paralyzed. We were taught to never dip your helmet when making a tackle and that video was designed to scare kids straight, to tackle properly.
Monday night, those old fears resurfaced when Pittsburgh linebacker Ryan Shazier laid motionless on the field and memories of Dennis Byrd and Mike Utley and Eric LeGrand and Buoniconti came rushing back. It was sobering, for fans and players alike. But it didn’t last for the players. With Shazier, who reportedly suffered a spinal contusion, off to the hospital, the game got even nastier and the respect between players clearly eroded.
“I don’t know what you need to do to get ejected from a football game,” Gruden said after Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster leveled serial slimeball Vontaze Burfict with a nasty crackback block and then stood over and ridiculed him. Schuster was suspended for one game Monday.
“A penalty like that, then a taunting penalty on top of it, that’s bad football,” Gruden said. “Bad for the game.”
It was just as bad for the game, just as off-putting, when Cincinnati sought revenge, because of course it did. The Bengals are regularly one of the dirtiest teams in the league, with Burfict typically supplying the dirty hits, so it was no surprise when Bengals defensive back George Iloka avenged his teammate and blighted Antonio Brown with a high, cheap hit that earned a flag and a suspension of one game.
“They send one of yours to the hospital, you send one of theirs to the morgue,” is a line from the movie “The Untouchables,” but it can easily pass for the gameplan when the Steelers and Bengals meet. Or perhaps you forgot what happened in the 2016 playoffs when Burfict and Pacman Jones lost the game for their team by playing like sociopaths.
Monday night was just the latest chapter of this fierce rivalry, a game played with biker-bar recklessness that Ben Roethlisberger initially chalked up as “just the AFC North.” When it was all over, the Bengals racked up a team-record 173 penalty yards, the Steelers were called for 66 of their own, and two players were taken off the field on stretchers.
It was mortifying even for the tough-guy announcers paid to glorify the violence of the game.
Have you ever heard an NFL announcer, an ambassador of the game like Gruden, call the anthem protests “disgusting”? No, you never did. Those takes were always reserved for after the game, mostly on social media and cable news. But this was on ESPN, at the end of the telecast, and Gruden, one of the most influential voices in football, couldn’t contain his disgust.
Troy Aikman, another football lifer, also condemned what he saw Monday night on Twitter, saying, “This game is hard to watch for a number of reasons … terrible for the NFL and the game of football overall.”
Aikman, who has a well-documented history with concussions, has said he has no memory of playing in the 1994 NFC Championship Game. Aikman’s battered brain will never get the kind of blame reserved for Kaepernick’s afro for pushing people away from football.
In response to another bad hit, which appeared to knock out Bengals RB Joe Mixon, who knows a thing or two about knocking people out, former Giants lineman Geoff Schwartz tweeted:
“The injuries and violence we have seen tonight is more of a concern for the future of the NFL than protests. The violence isn’t going away.”
Maybe worst of all was how players like the Brown discussed the mayhem after the game. Brown, who was nearly decapitated by Burfict last year, shouted “karma!” while Smith-Schuster was interviewed in the locker room about the hit.
And then you saw exactly why it is so much easier to blame anthem protests for the decline in football ratings instead of the violence of the game that’s regularly on public display for all to see. Brown was surrounded by reporters, talking about “karma,” and how the game was just a “typical” Steelers-Bengals clash and how Burfict had it coming.
“You do the wrong things, the wrong things happen to you,” Brown said. He was surrounded by reporters who all seemed to get a kick out of that.
And what did you think about that nasty crackback block?
“I like that,” he said, to a scrum of giggling football writers. “I like that.”
Brown and those boot-licking reporters may have liked that, but a lot of people like Gruden and people watching at home did not. Gruden won’t change the channel next week, but maybe some of those people at home will.
Now tell me, what’s harder to watch, a player on his knee, or one on a stretcher?
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