Stew Milne/USA TODAY Sports

Reimer: NFL players must take responsibility for league's brutality

Alex Reimer
December 05, 2017 - 2:13 pm

The NFL is often skewered for ignoring player safety concerns. For a long time, that was true. But since 2005, the league has introduced at least 24 measures that have outlawed certain blocks or tackles and greatly expanded the definition of “defenseless player.” There have also been two rule changes on kickoffs meant to increase the number of touchbacks, limiting the frequency of vicious collisions, like when Patriots special teamer Trevor Reilly crashed headfirst into Miami’s Senorise Perry two weeks ago. 

But all of those initiatives are meaningless if the players don’t follow them. The events of the last two days show the vitriol directed at the league for its unvarnished violence is largely misplaced. 

On Sunday, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski snapped. He smashed his elbow into the back of Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White’s helmet, forcing the rookie to leave the game with a head injury. It was a cheap and disgusting hit. Gronkowski was suspended one game. 

“Your actions were not incidental, could have been avoided and placed the opposing player at serious risk of injury,” NFL vice president of football operations Jon Runyan wrote in a letter to Gronk. “The Competiton Committee has clearly expressed its goal of 'eliminating flagrant hits that have no place in our game.' Those hits include the play you were involved in yesterday.”

Gronkowski’s one-game penalty matches what other similar offenders have received this season. Bears linebacker Danny Trevathan, Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans, Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib and Raiders receiver Michael Crabtree were all forced to miss one game after head shots or illegal post-play contact. (Talib's and Crabtree's suspensions were reduced from two games to one after their appeals.) 

The league handed out more discipline Tuesday after the barbaric Steelers-Bengals grudge match on "Monday Night Football." Two players –– Pittsburgh’s Ryan Shazier and Cincinnati’s Vontaze Burfict –– left the game on stretchers. Bengals running back Joe Mixon exited with a concussion. 

Burfict suffered his head injury when Steelers wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster came barreling towards him with an illegal crackback block. The play was outlawed last offseason, but it didn’t stop the rookie wide receiver from levying some punishment. 

Smith-Schuster was suspended one game along with Bengals safety George Iloka, who smashed Antonio Brown with a helmet-to-helmet hit in the end zone. Both are appealing, much like Gronkowski. 

After the game, Brown didn't seem upset about Iloka's gruesome shot. He was busy defending Smith-Schuster, saying Burfict received his karma. Burfict concussed Brown two years ago. 

This recent madness shows that rules can only protect players to a point. Sure, the NFL could try to force them into submission and increase penalties for these violations. If the league truly values player safety above all else, that’s what it should do. Increase the minimum suspension for unnecessary head shots to four games. Beat it into them. 

But at a certain point, responsibility must also fall on the players. It’s insulting to assume they’re incapable of thinking rationally on the field, even when emotions are running high. 

Teams violate the concussion protocol on a regular basis. Most recently, the Seahawks and Colts were criticized for rushing their quarterbacks –– Russell Wilson and Jacoby Brissett –– back into games without proper medical clearance. Seattle was docked $125,000 for its irresponsible oversight. 

Head coaches want to get their best players back in the game as quickly as possible, and oftentimes, the players agree. In order to fight against those inclinations, the league could steepen the penalty for breaking protocol. Strip clubs of draft picks instead of levying out nominal fines. 

But if that were the case, get ready to watch games decided by backups and third-stringers –– even more than already. There would be many more duels involving Tom Savage, Blaine Gabbert, Brett Hundley, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brissett. Imagine how much the ratings would decline then. 

And that’s probably why the NFL won’t stiffen its penalties for player safety infractions. The product would suffer. It’s callous and shallow, but multibillion-dollar corporations placate to their customers. Fans don’t watch bad football games with no star players. 

But they do watch violent bloodbaths. Ratings for Steelers-Bengals were up double digits from last week's low. Their brutal playoff encounter two years ago drew the best wild card number since 2012

Almost everybody cherishes player safety in theory. But the hurdles of reality get in the way. The issue is much more complex than just implementing new rules. 

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