This past Sunday’s rematch between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cleveland Browns came exactly 10 days after their first matchup of the season in Week 11. Unlike the previous matchup, the rematch which resulted in a 20-13 victory for the Steelers, unfolded as a usual AFC North rivalry game does. The tight game featured several hard hits, great defense, and run first offenses. Although this great game featured two teams fighting to make the playoffs, the main storyline focused on the infamous Myles Garrett helmet incident from the previous matchup.
In Week 11, Garrett, with five seconds on the clock and the Browns up 21-7, sacked Steelers’ quarterback Mason Rudolph and then ripped the helmet off of Rudolph at the end of the play. Subsequently, Garrett used that helmet as a blunt weapon by swinging it at Rudolph’s head. After he struck Rudolph in the head, a bench-clearing brawl erupted near the end zone. At the heart of the brawl was Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey, who punched and kicked Garrett in retaliation. Pouncey was quickly joined by a fellow offensive lineman as they went after Garrett and eventually pinned him to the ground.
As a result, the NFL disciplined 33 players and handed out $732,422 in fines for the brawl. Garrett was suspended for an indefinite amount of games, which will last at least through the rest of the regular season and any potential Browns postseason games. Moreover, Pouncey was suspended three games and Browns lineman Larry Ogunjobi was suspended one game for pushing Rudolph from behind. This unprecedented quantity of discipline imposed by the NFL, as demonstrated below, cited to various sections of the collectively bargained on-field code of conduct for all players.
However, this collectively bargained on-field code of conduct provides players who have been suspended an opportunity to appeal the suspension to the league office. Upon appeal, the NFL can revoke, reduce, or affirm the suspension. Garrett, Pouncey, and Ogunjobi appealed their suspensions. However, as reported by Justin Terranova of The New York Post, Pouncey was the only player to successfully appeal as his suspension was reduced from three games to two.
The goal of the conduct policy is to outline expectations for players to conduct themselves in a way that honors the sport and respects the game. In other words, the rules are intended to protect players from unnecessary risk, promote player safety, and emphasize sportsmanship. These rules extend to how players treat teammates, opponents, coaches, officials and fans.
Player infractions may come to the league’s attention in a variety of ways. Specifically, the league may respond to an official’s call during a game or to a specific play that a team submits for review. Additionally, the NFL Officiating Department reviews every play from every game and refers potential violations to the Football Operations compliance team. Subsequently, league staff members examine those plays to determine whether there is cause for additional review.
As demonstrated above, the NFL has broad discretion over decisions regarding the amount of fines or lengths of potential suspension resulting from a player’s on the field conduct. The NFL mostly cited the fighting and entering the fighting area provisions when handing down fines for this incident. However, Garrett was cited for unsportsmanlike conduct, unnecessary roughness, removing the helmet of an opponent, fighting, and using a helmet as a weapon.
Garrett promptly appealed the suspension imposed by the NFL, which required that he comply with the appeal process, which is provided by the NFL on-field conduct policy. After Garrett notified the NFL that he protested the suspension, a hearing was scheduled with the NFL. James Thrash, an appeals officer who was jointly appointed and paid by the NFL and the NFLPA, was randomly assigned to the case. The officer assigned to the case reviews the play, listens to the league’s case, and hears the player’s defense. The officer’s ultimate decision is final, and the ruling is binding.
Garrett raised several arguments during his appeal, however they proved to be unpersuasive as James Thrash upheld the indefinite suspension. According to Jake Trotter of ESPN, Garrett argued that Rudolph caused the altercation by directing a racial slur at him and that an indefinite suspension is not permissible under the NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement. Moreover, Garrett attempted to analogize his incident with a 2013 incident where the Texans’ Antonio Smith took a swing at Dolphins lineman Richie Incognito during a preseason game. The NFL suspended Smith for two preseason games and one regular-season contest for that incident. The NFL found these arguments to be unpersuasive and found no evidence that a racial slur was used, therefore the indefinite suspension was upheld.
The NFL made a clear statement by upholding the indefinite suspension that in 2019 this unnecessary violence will not be tolerated and significant discipline will be handed down if it arises. As a result, the Browns lost one of their best players as they are battling for their playoff lives. Moreover, Garrett has tarnished his legacy, isolated himself from teammates, and lost a minimum of six game checks. In a time where the NFL has frequently been criticized for the length of suspensions handed down in domestic violence incidents and for their lack of regard for player safety, it appears the NFL got this one right. Garrett’s selfish actions have hurt himself while also derailing the Browns’ chances at the playoffs. Hopefully, current and future players have taken notice and this will deter similar conduct. Simply put, there is no place in football for what took place in Week 11 and, rightfully so, the NFL doubled down on their indefinite suspension by upholding it following the appeal.