Cleveland is a midwestern city of roughly 400,000 people. Not much that happens there makes national news. But even the New York Times covered the Nov. 14 brawl between members of the Cleveland Browns and the Pittsburgh Steelers in the National Football League.
With the Browns leading 21-7 and only eight seconds of play left, the game’s outcome was certain. Browns defensive end Myles Garrett tackled Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph, bringing him down after a pass had already been thrown. Rudolph tugged on Garrett’s helmet and tried to deliver a knee to the groin. In retaliation, Garrett pulled Rudolph’s helmet off.
While Rudolph’s teammates were restraining Garrett, the quarterback charged Garrett, who swung Rudolph’s helmet and hit him on the head. Browns defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi shoved Rudolph. Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey kicked Garrett in the head.
Garrett has been widely attacked for using Rudolph’s helmet “as a weapon.” Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield and Coach Freddie Kitchens immediately denounced Garrett’s behavior, but Kitchens later pointed out that Garrett “understands what he did” and was “embarrassed.” Garrett apologized “to Mason Rudolph, my teammates, our entire organization, our fans and the NFL” the very next day after the incident. (Yahoo Sports, Nov. 15)
Pouncey’s comment defending his own conduct in the melee — that Garrett “could have killed” Rudolph — has become a common refrain. That was possible, according to specialists in sports medicine, but highly unlikely. In fact Rudolph did not sustain any injury from the hit to his head.
The NFL suspended Garrett for the entire season, postseason and perhaps even extending into next season. Pouncey and Ogunjobi were also suspended for three games and one game, respectively.
Rudolph, who by many accounts instigated the fight, was not suspended or even ejected from the last few seconds of the game. Max Kellerman, a white cohost of the popular ESPN program, “First Take,” commented Nov. 15 that this was obviously unfair, stating that Rudolph should have gotten at least a one-game suspension.
Black ESPN commentators — most notably the Emmy-award-winning Michael Wilbon, co-host of “Pardon the Interruption” — along with USA Today echoed Kellerman’s views.
The players union is appealing all three suspensions.
Few dare call out racism
Garrett, Pouncey and Ogunjobi are Black. Rudolph is white. Yet few voices in the sports world, even those decrying the lack of fairness, dare to utter the word “racism.” The inconsistency in imposing penalties was somehow due to favoritism toward quarterbacks — or toward the Steelers. But whatever the motive, it’s hard to conceive that the players would not view the NFL’s actions as racism.
Sports commentator Pete Smith wrote: “The lack of action against Mason Rudolph, the one who started everything that would transpire and escalated the situation, is troubling and now raises questions about race.” For merely suggesting that racism might be a factor in the disparity in punishment, Smith drew critical comments online. Others commended him. (Sports Illustrated, Nov. 15)
This is not an isolated incident. Racism has permeated the NFL since its founding in 1920. While 70 percent of NFL players are Black, when it comes to “leadership” only five out of 32 quarterbacks and only two head coaches are Black. The Washington, D.C., and Kansas City team names are still racist slurs against Indigenous people. Colin Kaepernick has been barred for the last three years from playing for taking a knee during the national anthem to protest racist police brutality.
Professional sports is a lucrative source of profits under the capitalist system of exploitation. That’s why the NFL mirrors all the evils of capitalist society, including sexism as well as racism. As Smith also points out, “While this [Nov. 14 fight] is an isolated incident, violence against women is an epidemic. Numerous players across the league are making millions of dollars playing every week while victims [of their sexist assaults] are subjected to reliving nightmares in their lives as stadiums full of people are cheering.”
A pervasive culture of violence
Capitalist culture is also reflected in the overriding culture of violence in the NFL that the Browns-Steelers scuffle epitomizes. Winning a football game depends on defense as well as offense. That means physically tackling the opponent. Other than hockey, boxing and wrestling, few sports demand as much aggressive physical contact.
The old adage, “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game,” has never been true when capitalist team owners’ profits go up and down based on winning or losing. Winning is everything to them. When winning depends on aggressive behavior, doesn’t that foster a culture of violence? How else to explain the seemingly irrational flaring of tempers, which hurt the players involved, their team and their fans?
If Myles Garrett can be chastised for endangering another player, what about the team owners, who demand players risk their health and safety every time they play? The longterm health consequences of repeated head trauma are well-documented. Denied decent health care, retired players suffer needlessly from lifelong injuries.
The multimillionaires and -billionaires who own the teams and ultimately “call the shots” tend to be reactionaries. Browns owners’ Jimmy and Dee Haslam are brother and sister-in-law and political supporters of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam — who was instrumental in defeating the union at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga. Art Modell, who owned the original Browns and moved the team to Baltimore, was a long-time Republican Party supporter. Jerry Jones and Robert Kraft, the billionaire owners of the Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots, respectively, are proud Trump supporters.
Professional athletes, even the highest-paid, are workers under capitalism. They have a right to safe working conditions, including stress management. They have a right to a nondiscriminatory work environment.
But under capitalism, these rights are hard to come by.