As if the game itself, legally played, weren’t enough to cause its players brain damage, in a Thursday Night televised pro football game this week Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett ripped the helmet off Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph and clubbed him in the head with it. The league acted swiftly, suspending Garrett for the rest of this season, including the playoffs should the Browns make them, and reinstatement is by no means assured.
This is the longest suspension for an on-field incident in NFL history. I can find no fault with Garrett’s apology, Level One on the Apology Scale, issued before the sentence came down. He said,
“Last night, I made a terrible mistake. I lost my cool and what I did was selfish and unacceptable. I know that we are all responsible for our actions, and I can only prove my true character through my actions moving forward. I want to apologize to Mason Rudolph, my teammates, our entire organization, our fans and to the NFL. I know I have to be accountable for what happened, learn from my mistake, and I fully intend to do so.”
His “mistake” language might reasonably be interpreted with some skepticism in light of the fact that Garrett had already been fined more than $50,000 this season for punching Tennessee Titans tight end Delanie Walker and for two late hits on New York Jets quarterback Trevor Siemian, the second of which knocked Siemian out for the season with an ankle injury.
The NFL also suspended Browns defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi one game for shoving Rudolph in the back and to the ground after Garrett had smashed him in the head, and gave Pittsburgh center Maurkice Pouncey, who had kicked and punched Garrett, a three games break.
Here I would normally take an easy cheap shot at the brutality of “America’s game.” However, the most similar incident in American professional sports—if you don’t count hockey, and I don’t—occurred in the kinder, gentler (better) game of Major League Baseball.
On August 22, 1965 the L.A. Dodgers were playing the San Francisco Giants in the City Beside the Bay, in an intense game between two teams vying for the National League pennant. The Dodger were leading the Giants in the standings by a single game and a half.
In those halcyon days, pitchers throwing close to batters’ heads, sometimes hitting them (here’s Red Sox star Tony Conigliaro after a pitch hit him in the face in 1967, permanently damaging his eyesight)…
…was considered part of the game. Giant’s ace Juan Marichal, now a Hall of Fame member and then known for perfect control, had buzzed Dodgers shortstop Maury Wills, to start the game, and in response, Dodgers starter Sandy Koufax threw a fastball over Willie Mays’ head when the Giants came to bat. Not to let Sandy get the last “word,” Marichal hurled an inside fastball that sent Dodgers first baseman Ron Fairly diving for his life.
Umpire Shag Crawford issued a warning to both pitchers and teams after that, meaning that that any close pitches from either team would result in ejections and fines. The Dodgers, however, found a way around that. When Marichal came to bat for the first time in the bottom of the third inning, L.A. catcher John Roseboro threw the ball back to Koufax so close to Marichal’s head that the pitcher could feel the ball go by. The pitcher, always intense but never before homicidal, turned around and hit Roseboro in the head with his bat, causing a bloody gash and setting off a full-fledged brawl between the teams.
Marichal only got an eight day suspension, which for a starting pitcher means just two or three games missed, and was fined $1,750, which would be about $15,000 today. Although Roseboro didn’t file a criminal complaint (he could have), he did sue Marichal for $110,000, a case that was settled with the pitcher agreeing to pay $7,500 in damages.
Even in 1965, the light penalty Marichal received was criticized. But for moral luck, he might have killed Roseboro. The slap on the wrist was probably recognized at the time as the King’s Pass, since that’s exactly what it was. Juan Marichal was a very popular player (especially with Santo Domingans) and an unquestionably great one in his prime. I have often wondered what would have happened if the non-superstar, Roseboro, had been the one doing the bat-swinging.
Craig Calcaterra, whom I credit for reminding me of the 1965 incident on his blog for NBC Sports, makes a very-Craigish (he is a lawyer) argument that both the conduct of both players should have been viewed with some sympathy, Roseboro because as a black man he was stressed over the recent Watts riots, and Marichal because his native Dominican Republic was embroiled in a civil war at the time. “When you feel helpless about situation A, you often channel your feelings into situation,” says the sympathetic writer, as if he were making a desperate argument at a sentencing hearing.
Yeah, I hear that Jack the Ripper was usually a nice guy but was really upset about British foreign policy in 1888.
A nice coda to the story is that Roseboro and Marichal eventually patched things up, and both said that there was no lingering anger.
So far it looks as if there will be no criminal charges filed this time either. Predictably, some sportswriters are defending Garrett the same way Marichal was defended in 1965. Rudolph apparently started the altercation, just as Rosoboro (as he later admitted) deliberately threw the ball near Marichal’s head at home plate, trying to shake him up. Listen to sportswriter Max Kellerman’s contrived reasoning that because Rudolph seemed to be trying to remove Garrett’s helmet, that signaled that he had consented to Garrett using a helmet as a weapon. Listen as he also cites the NFL game rules that dictate that the penalty for using equipment inappropriately is a 15 yard penalty.
Unless a sports league wants to see someone murdered during a game, the reaction to a potentially deadly attack by one player on another should be unequivocal, merciless, and devastating. This time, the NFL got it right.