We can wag our finger at violence of Steelers-Bengals, but we’ll be back clamoring for more

Yahoo Sports

Were you appalled by what you saw on “Monday Night Football”? Cheap hits, dirty tactics, and a near-catastrophic injury?

Most of us were.

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Will you watch the next game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers in 2018?

Most of us will.

There is a central dilemma for the national pastime: it’s brutal and dangerous. There is also a central lure for the national pastime: it’s brutal and dangerous. We are drawn and repulsed, and we are drawn because we are repulsed.

Steelers wideout Antonio Brown caught a touchdown pass and paid for it as he received a head shot from George Iloka (not pictured). The Bengal was suspended for the blow on Tuesday. (AP)
Steelers wideout Antonio Brown caught a touchdown pass and paid for it as he received a head shot from George Iloka (not pictured). The Bengal was suspended for the blow on Tuesday. (AP)

It’s an addiction we can’t shake, and let’s face it, not many of us want to.

Thank goodness Pittsburgh linebacker Ryan Shazier reportedly has some movement in his lower extremities after a scary back injury sustained during a tackle brought millions to fear paralysis. He was rushed to a Level 1 trauma center in Cincinnati and it didn’t immediately seem like he had feeling in his legs. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin hurried to the hospital without changing out of his game gear. Shazier’s parents were flown in from Florida. For a moment, the entire football world didn’t care about the game.

But that moment passed, as it always does. Thoughts didn’t leave Shazier but attention didn’t leave the field. Soon there was another frightening collision, authored by rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster on notorious Bengals defender Vontaze Burfict, who had to be carted off the field and placed into concussion protocol. The NFL’s judgement of the hit went beyond the penalties Smith-Schuster received for unnecessary roughness and taunting. He was slapped Tuesday with a one-game suspension.

The Steelers receiver apologized after the game. Bengals receiver A.J. Green thoughtfully said this: “It’s not called for; we already play a dangerous sport. We all put our lives on the line when we come out here every weekend. You just don’t want nothing like that happening to another player, no matter what team we’re playing, how big the rivalry is.”

Were the Steelers horrified? Not quite. Antonio Brown said “karma” in the locker room afterward (as this is not the first run-in with Burfict) and Ben Roethlisberger described what happened on the field as “AFC North football.”

What are the chances Roethlisberger, Brown or Smith-Schuster will be disliked in Pittsburgh? Very low. What are the chances that tight end Rob Gronkowski will be disliked in New England after his dirty hit on a defenseless Buffalo Bills rookie on Sunday? Very low.

It’s easy to say “Violent hits are fine, just keep it clean,” and that is the ideal. To the league’s credit, it has cracked down on the ugliest of hits over the past few years. This is an improvement and a look at NFL footage from the 1980s shows it. Our reaction to helmet-to-helmet hits – more horror than happiness – shows we’ve evolved somewhat.

“We have a responsibility to make this game as safe as it can be,” Tomlin said Tuesday. “I take that responsibility personally.”

He means it.

But everyone loves the drama and unfortunately, the threat of violence adds to it. In our daily lives we get angry and we must contain our baser instincts (except on social media). Football players do it for us. They inflict pain on the rival in the way our distant ancestors did.

“Humans are predisposed to murder each other, new research suggests,” is how one Guardian story put it. That’s a little stark (thank heavens) but evolutionary biology expert Mark Pagel of the University of Reading goes on to explain it to the newspaper that “in the broadest terms … humans have evolved strategies for solving problems with violence.”

Most of us want to make our way through society civilly, but instinctually we want to eradicate hurdles to happiness – even if they are human hurdles. That’s how we get most bar brawls. We could easily talk it out, and maybe buy each other a brew. But on a baser level it’s more rewarding to trade blows. And it’s far more rewarding to watch a bar brawl than to witness a calm discussion.

This is all over society. Reality shows feature the “elimination” of contestants. Amazon is both awed and feared for its ability to “destroy” the local mall. In politics, “Lock her up” is a refrain, not “Defeat her at the polling place.” And on Twitter, a huge NBA dunk often gets a caption like “RIP.”

In a real twist of instincts, consider the media’s reaction to CTE. The truth is that the condition’s long-term effects on football players are scientifically unproven. But CTE is often described as a threat to end football completely. We even use end-game language to argue how we should end the game that can end careers.

Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict was carted off the field Monday after receiving a vicious block from Steelers rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster. (AP)
Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict was carted off the field Monday after receiving a vicious block from Steelers rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster. (AP)

This isn’t to say that we should give up the regulation of the sport. Hopefully every season brings more awareness, more safety and more restraint. Quarterbacks in this era know to slide and defenders know to let them. So this vicious hit on former Lions passer Eric Hipple will ideally never happen again.

But our instincts are still our instincts, and there will always be some thrill at witnessing danger and violence. (Admit it, you just watched the Hipple hit.) Scouts and general managers will always salivate at the linebacker who can approach the line of savagery without crossing it. So ultimately it’s up to the players to modulate their own behavior, whether it’s in the heat of a game or in the moments after.

Absolutely no one in the audience wants injury, but most people in football’s audience get upset when a player allows an opponent to go by without trying to “lay him out.” Just look at Le’Veon Bell’s touchdown run on Monday night. Bengals cornerback William Jackson simply let the rusher through without a hit. That moment was more embarrassing than anything Smith-Schuster did. And that tells you a lot about football: players are told to be safe, but let the opponent feel it. That’s a balance that’s sometimes impossible to strike. And whether we admit it or not, we unfairly expect the athletes themselves to find that balance every weekend.

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