Seven days have passed since the brawl that occurred during the second half of the Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars football game at New Era Field on November 25, 2018. During this game, Jaguars former starting quarterback Blake Bortles connected with Wide Receiver Donte Moncrief for what was initially ruled a 31 yard touchdown catch. In a matter of moments, however, players from both teams were involved in an altercation that became the story of the week, particularly among the Buffalo and Jacksonville fan bases.
When the dust settled on the fight, Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette and Bills defensive lineman Shaq Lawson were ejected for throwing punches, Buffalo head coach Sean McDermott had a small cut on his hand and blood on his hoodie, and Moncrief was determined to have been down by contact just short of the goal line.
While a synopsis of the altercation can be presented in just a few sentences, there is a lot more to unpack from a procedural and League perspective. To begin, it was announced on November 26th that Fournette would be suspended for the Jaguars’ upcoming game against the Colts, a decision that was appealed by Fournette, but ultimately upheld on November 28th. Additionally, the NFL announced fines for Lawson, Bills safety Micah Hyde, and Jaguars backup running back Carlos Hyde for their roles in the fight. In anticipation of his fine, Shaq Lawson expressed his intention to appeal days before the fine was issued. But the question can also be asked how these punishments fit in relation to punishments issued in similar situations, and what the League can learn from the altercation.
What Really Happened On the Field Sunday Afternoon?
A television broadcast can only provide a limited perspective of what actually takes place on a playing field. While viewers can see the results of plays and how they unfold, the television broadcast does not usually allow viewers to hear the discussions among players, coaches, and officials, so most viewers hypothesized as to why the fight broke out based upon the television footage.
However, UB Law Sports Forum was lucky enough to get a first-hand perspective from an eye-witness. Sal Capaccio is a Buffalo Bills Beat Reporter, Buffalo Bills Sideline Reporter, and Sports Talk Host for WGR Sports Radio 550AM in Buffalo. Sal also had an up-close and personal view of the incident, and he was willing to answer a few questions to clarify exactly what went down at field level.
After glossing over what was shown on the television broadcast, which was Moncrief catching the pass, I asked Sal to review what happened next, what he heard, and what he observed. Sal stated:
“I think what happened is that Micah [Hyde] was pleading with the referee, and basically telling him ‘our guy had [an interception].’ Whoever it was that came over from the Jags who originally pushed Micah was basically saying to Micah ‘Hey, play is over, he [the referee] has already called it, get away.’ That was kind of the first little push. Then Micah kind of bowed-up to him, and pushed him a little bit, and that’s when people started getting involved. It was very, very quick when everything escalated. Suddenly it went from two guys from each team talking to a tidal wave of players coming from everywhere.”
While it has been widely reported and confirmed in the days following the game, very few people realized that Leonard Fournette was not in the game for the play that led to the fight. The NFL suspended Fournette one game for his actions, stating in a letter directly to Fournette that “video of the incident shows that you were not a participant in the play and that you ran from your sideline to the opposite side of the field to insert yourself as an active participant in a fight”. Additionally, Sal noted that “Fournette just made a beeline for Shaq.” Sal further commented that, upon reviewing the film in the following days, Fournette’s intentions appeared to be as obvious as they were when he observed the incident from the sideline.
“You don’t see him run across the field. What you do see is that, suddenly, he just appears out of nowhere. It [did not] matter who was around, he was going right to Shaq. He wants Shaq. Then Fournette puts his hands up like he’s going to box Shaq, and that’s when it started.
After exchanging a few blows, the players were eventually separated and the NFL officials removed Lawson and Fournette from the game. There is video evidence of a fan hitting Fournette in the helmet with a beer can, while an additional tweet suggested that a fan may have thrown a punch in Fournette’s direction on his way to the locker room. When I asked Sal about this, he stated that:
“I went back and watched, they did not throw a punch. They reached over the wall and very lightly pushed him. It wasn’t a punch. Whoever it was got ejected. I know that. I spoke to the Bills [Wednesday] about it. When Fournette was walking and he was waiting for Shaq, Shaq goes up the tunnel, and as that happens whoever it was reached out and gave, not even a hard push, but more like they wanted to do a harder push but couldn’t really get any leverage, so they just gave him a little bit of a touch or a shove.”
Sal further reiterated that, even though it was a light shove and not a punch, the fan was out of line for his actions. “As a fan, that’s not your place, you don’t reach over and ever touch anybody”, he explained. Sal additionally expressed his appreciation that no fans reached over the wall near the goal line where the fight originated.
After discussing Sal’s first-hand perspective of the events, we finished by discussing the atmosphere that followed the fight at New Era Field. While the Bills held the Jaguars out of the end-zone and forced them to settle for a field goal attempt, which was subsequently missed, Sal explained that these results only tell part of the story:
“I will tell you: I’ve played football all my life. I’ve coached football down in Florida, which is intense. I’ve been on an NFL sideline now for five years. That was the most ‘intense’ I’ve ever experienced on a sideline, immediately following. The next five minutes were really, really intense. The crowd was jumping. It was really interesting. [Regarding the atmosphere leading to the missed field goal and the Bills almost immediately scoring a touchdown] It played a role in everything. Guys nerves ramp up a little bit. You’re just playing a little bit different. [Jacksonville Jaguars Kicker Josh Lambo] had hit [twenty-seven] in a row from inside 50 before that one. And suddenly he goes out there and misses. Is he thinking about what’s going on? Is he thinking about someone taking a cheap shot at him? You never know what goes on, and that’s why I think all of that stuff does matter.”
Do the Punishments Fit the Crimes, and Does Lawson Have a Case?
The 2018 NFL Rule Book under Rule 12, Section 2, Article 12 states that “All players are prohibited from: (a) striking an opponent with his fists; (b) kicking or kneeing an opponent; and (c) striking, swinging at, or clubbing the head, neck, or face of an opponent with the wrist(s), arm(s), elbow(s), or hand(s).” The Rule Book goes on to explain that, if a violation occurs, a 15 yard penalty should be applied. And if the official determines that the infraction was flagrant, the offender may be disqualified from the game. Addtionally, Rule 12, Section 3, Article 1 determines it is Unsportsmanlike Conduct to “[throw] a punch…at an opponent, even though no contact is made.” This rule also allows for supplemental discipline from the NFL for violations, which is why the NFL punished Fournette, Lawson, Micah Hyde, and Carlos Hyde.
The easiest punishments to break down are going to be those of Micah and Carlos Hyde. Both players were fined $13,369, which is the NFL standard minimum for a first offense Unsportsmanlike Conduct penalty. The two punishments whose applications warrant the toughest scrutiny are the one game suspension issued to Leonard Fournette and the $33,425 fine issued to Shaq Lawson. Lawson’s fine is the NFL standard minimum for a player’s first offense of fighting, but it may be the application that is problematic, and gives Lawson a chance to win his appeal.
Two specific incidents set the precedent for an incident such as this: the November 5, 2017 fight involving Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green and Jacksonville Jaguars defensive back Jalen Ramsey, and the fight involving Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans, quarterback Jameis Winston, and New Orleans Saints defensive back Marshon Lattimore occurring on the same day. In the case of A.J. Green and Jalen Ramsey, it was Green that sought out Ramsey after a shove and attacked him with a chokehold and punches in the midst of a hard-fought game. The NFL chose to fine Green $42,521 for his role in the fight, which is over $12,000 more than the minimum for a first offense that season. Ramsey was not punished at all, though it was his second ejection for fighting in less than two full seasons. Additionally, in the case of Evans, Winston, and Lattimore, one player was determined to not warrant being fined by the NFL. In this situation, Winston was out of the game nursing an injury, and decided to come off the sideline and poke Lattimore in the helmet. Lattimore, who was playing defense at the time, reacted to Winston’s gesture with a shove. This prompted a blindside hit from Evans, who was not ejected from the game, but who was subsequently suspended for the following week’s game for his actions. Winston, too, was issued a fine of over $12,000. Lattimore was also not punished for his role, as he was not the instigator of the brawl. It should also be noted that the same Appeals Officer handled both Mike Evans’s and Leonard Fournette’s appeal.
These decisions by the NFL set the precedent for Shaq Lawson to potentially prevail on his appeal. Shaq Lawson was not the aggressor in the shoving match with Carlos Hyde, nor was he the aggressor in the altercation with Leonard Fournette. If the Appeals Officer chooses to stick by the precedent set by similar altercations, then Lawson has a case. In the instances of Ramsey and Lattimore, they were each not without fault. This holds true in relation to Lawson’s actions, as well. However, the aggressors in their respective fights, Green and Evans, made the decision to fight for them, which is precisely what Fournette did in the incident on Sunday afternoon in Buffalo.
Can The NFL Get Out In Front of an Unforeseen Issue?
WGR 550’s Sal Capaccio told the story of a victim, of sorts, of the Fournette/Lawson brawl whose story would never make it onto ESPN or the NFL Network. The man is a security guard, whose job it is to face the stands, not the players on the field.
“One of the security guards down there got trucked by one of the Bills coming over from the sidelines. He fell down pretty hard. The security guard that it happened to happens to be deaf, so I don’t think he heard anything behind him. The security isn’t there to maintain between the players, it is to maintain the crowd. We’re watching it, and he suddenly went down super hard. I went over to one of the Bills team doctors and told him about it, and said ‘you might want to check on this guy.’ One of the Bills team doctors got one of his staff members to take the security guard into the tunnel to check on him. I felt bad for him, but I was pumping him up later, saying ‘Man, it’s alright, you did your job!’ But here he is as security getting pushed down. But he came back out later. He was good. I’m glad they at least checked on him.”
Thankfully, the young man is okay. However, the question that begs asking is whether the NFL has the proper procedure in place to deescalate the situations when these altercations arise. There are forty-six active players per team for every game day, and seven NFL officials keeping the peace. The security that is on site currently is responsible for the fans, not the players, and this man was blindsided due to an altercation that, for a lack of better words, originated outside of his jurisdiction. This could be an isolated incident, with no true harm or foul. The point, however, is that the NFL should certainly take this security guard’s incident as an opportunity to review its procedure for when large fights break out on the playing field and its sidelines. During this past weekend’s events there were a lot of whistles doing very little to deescalate the situation.
Photo Courtesy: Jamie Germano/Rochester Democrat