In the aftermath of the ugly brawl that turned Thursday night’s game between the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers into another big stain on the reputation of the National Football League, there was a mad rush to characterize the frightening behavior of Browns star Myles Garrett as both outrageous and unprecedented.
Of course, it was outrageous. When a guy nearly twists the head off an opposing player to get his helmet and then slams that helmet down on the other guy’s head, there aren’t many adjectives that are too extreme to fit the situation.
Unprecedented? Not so much.
Over and over during the postgame coverage of a spectacle more worthy of WWE Smackdown (also on Fox), the commentators across the sports cable landscape kept asking each other if they had ever seen anything like it. The answer, invariably, was no.
Maybe I’m outing myself as a journalistic fossil, but when I saw Garrett swing that helmet and hit Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph upside the head, I was transported back a half-century or so to an August afternoon in 1965.
I was 9 years old and a rabid San Francisco Giants fan living outside Los Angeles, and I was sitting in front of our black-and-white television set when Hall of Fame Giants ace Juan Marichal took a bat to the head of Dodgers catcher John Roseboro in one of the most infamous baseball brawls in history.
It was a different sport, but the parallels between the two incidents are obvious. It was certainly egregious and made national headlines, but nothing like this. Marichal was suspended for 10 games, or a little more than a week, and fined $1,750.
No doubt, at that time, veteran sports writers were drawing the same kind of cross-sport comparisons to the NFL game in 1954 between the Baltimore Colts and the Los Angeles Rams during which Colts lineman Don Joyce pulled the helmet off of Rams linebacker Les Richter and hit him in the face with it. Richter was leveled by the blow and required stitches to close a gash near his eye.
Joyce was ejected from the game and fined, but he was not suspended.
That must seem hard to believe, but it was a different time. The nation was just recovering from two major wars and settling into the tense Cold War with the Soviet Union. The NFL featured just 12 teams and didn’t have nearly the impact on the national consciousness that it eventually would wield when professional sports became a staple of the television era.
By the time Marichal blew his cool in 1965, fans were far more likely to see television news footage of the brawl, but with the nation back at war and several American cities embroiled in race riots that summer, it didn’t hold their attention very long.
Fighting on the athletic field was far more common back then. Baseball brawls happened regularly and didn’t always lead to discipline from the league. I once asked American League president and former New York Yankees Dr. Bobby Brown, why he chose not to suspend a player who had been ejected after a beanball incident during the 1980s.
“Because it’s not a tea party,” he replied.
Well, that’s still true for football, but maybe we’ve become more sensitive to violence, both in sports and society in general. If so, that’s a good thing.
Fast forward to age of the 24-hour sports news cycle and social media and it’s hard to imagine that anyone with a television, a laptop or a hand-held device has not seen Garrett swing that helmet multiple times by now. He’ll be branded by that moment for the rest of his career, but Marichal is proof that redemption is possible.
Marichal would go on to finish a terrific career and be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame with no one questioning his character. He and Roseboro became friendly in later years, their legacies intertwined by the incident, and Marichal would be an honorary pall bearer and speaker at Roseboro’s funeral in 2002.
The NFL moved swiftly to impose an indefinite suspension and a large fine on Garrett, which is not surprising at all for a league whose image has been battered in recent years by its muddled response to one major societal issue after another.
It was an appropriate decision that will allow Garrett to reclaim his career at some point and work to rehabilitate his own public image, but the league needs to do more to counter the kind violence on the field that was on display well before the final seconds of Thursday night’s game.
Steelers receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson were both injured more severely than Rudolph by helmet-to-helmet hits during the course of the game. When Johnson staggered off the field after he was leveled by Browns safety Damarious Randall, he appeared to be bleeding from his ear.
So maybe it’s good that the prime time NFL games start too late for kids to stay up and watch them on school nights.