On Monday, the NFL announced it is suspending New England Patriots Tight End Rob Gronkowski for his late his on Tre’Davious White. In a season that has seen what seems like more excessive personal conduct fouls than usual, this proved to be yet another case for the much-maligned NFL Competition Committee to try and figure out. While the hit from Gronk was wrong, and an absolutely dirty play, the level of discipline necessary turns into a grey area when you consider how similar cases have been handled this year. It seems like every other week now, I start this column with “the NFL has a problem with _____” or “_____ is wrong with the NFL”. Not being able to define what is and isn’t a suspend-able infraction certainly has its consequences, so in the words of the great 20th century philosopher David Coverdale, ‘here I go again on my own.’
Before you rip my head off and call me heartless, or a homer, or something I can’t list here because my parents read this, let me say the hit was wrong. It was dirty, dangerous, and deserves punishment. The punishment aspect was obvious to everybody, or so it would seem. 7 individuals happened to miss the severity of the play, all of which had an ideal view of the action. For whatever reason, Gene Steratore and his crew decided to NOT eject Rob Gronkowski for the infraction. This is where the inconstancies begin. NFL Rule 12, Section 3, Article 1 defines ‘throwing a punch, or a forearm’ as a ‘prohibited act’ and ‘if the infraction is flagrant [which it was], the player is also disqualified’. Failing to eject Gronk put the entire burden of punishment on the Competition Committee, when he should have been disciplined in the moment, which would lessen the final decision.
One more note on the refs before we move on to today’s suspension. What few people seem to realize is they hold a share of the blame for what went down Sunday in Buffalo. The officials had lost control of the game well before that play took place. According to the NFL Operations Website, the job of the officials is to ‘establish consistency from game to game’ and ‘make the game fairer and safer’. While the phrase ‘losing control of the game’ conjures up images of bench clearing brawls, in my mind refs have lost control of a game when they fail to make it a safe, balanced playing environment (ex. When Ndamukong Suh tackled Dion Lewis by the facemask last week with no call, the officials had lost control of that game). Steratore’s crew was missing calls both ways on Sunday, and the game turned into the players governing themselves. It was only a matter of time until it turned violent.
Whenever the officials lose control of a game involving the Patriots, Rob Gronkowski always suffers the worst. It seems like for the past 3 years, Gronk (and players covering him) has been judged by different rules than everyone else on the field. Gronk’s size, agility, and ability make the most difficult plays seem mundane, which often makes people think ‘he made that look so easy it HAS to be illegal’. Having players constantly hanging all over him, undeterred, puts Gronkowski at higher risk for injury than anyone else on the field. If you don’t believe me, watch the clip from Sunday Night Football where Eagles TE Zach Ertz left with a concussion. Ertz, who deals with similar referee neglect to Gronk, had his arm held on a play, which stopped him from bracing himself when he hit the ground. He landed headfirst, and was helped off by a concussion specialist. For a guy who has the injury history Gronkowski has, it’s not hard to see why he would be frustrated by the lack of calls his way. He should keep his cool, and there are better way to handle the situation; but at a certain point, if the officials will not look out for his well-being, he has to take it into his own hands. Maybe you can fault him for that, but I find it hard to blame a guy for protecting his own health and livelihood.
Now onto the suspension. In a bubble, that kind of play deserves a suspension. But the NFL doesn’t exist in a bubble. While some people are treating this like the be-all-end-all of dirty NFL plays, its far from the worst we’ve seen this season alone. We saw Michael Crabtree and Aqib Talib incite a riot. Each got a one game suspension. We saw Kiko Alonso attempt to decapitate Joe Flacco, receive no suspension and a fine under $10,000. In the same game, Alonso’s teammate Ndomukong Suh choke slammed Raven’s quarterback Ryan Mallett. Just to be clear, ‘choke slam’ is not a euphemism. Suh grabbed Mallett by the throat, and then threw him to the turf. He received no punishment (not even a fine) for enacting a WWE finishing move during a nationally televised NFL game.
How can the league suspend Gronkowski when they choose to ignore plays like I mentioned above? By failing to set precedent, the NFL creates an environment where players can continue to push the line knowing their case could slip through the cracks. Given who Gronkowski plays for, his case was destined to be higher profile. It’s the anti-Patriot effect, where fans of other teams will take a minor issue and blow it out of proportion, hoping to dent the Patriots legendary resume (see: Deflategate). I have no doubt that this factored into the decision to suspend Gronk. Given the context of this season, the NFL had no business suspending Gronkowski, and they once again foolishly showed bias in their vendetta against Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and the New England organization. Hopefully Gronk has learned his lesson, and won’t do anything that stupid again, but there is a lesson to be learned by us as well. The NFL has no clue what it is doing when it comes to the on-field conduct of its players, and will continue to flop and flail and hand out suspensions that serve its PR machine rather than making the game safer for those involved.
For my expanded thoughts on the whole situation, check out the latest episode of Callin’ It (and then check out the latest episode of the Loose Change podcast, because those guys do a great job and Michael Hurley is the man). If you’re one of those lunatics who still thinks the NFL didn’t do enough, let me hear it on Twitter @RealAlexB.
Written By: Alex Barth (@RealAlexB)