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NFL Players Must Walk a Thin Line. Myles Garrett Ignored It.

Garrett’s conduct on Thursday landed him a suspension for the rest of the season. It will stick with him for much longer.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Vince Lombardi called football “controlled violence.” “He did not consider the phrase an oxymoron,” David Maraniss wrote in his brilliant biography When Pride Still Mattered. “The violence was as important to him as the control.”

This is the thin line that football players walk: The violence must exist, but it must be so finely tuned that most people don’t notice it. It is a strange sport in this regard. Myles Garrett practiced uncontrolled violence on Thursday night, and that is why he is suspended indefinitely. Garrett, if you’ve been without a television or internet connection for the past few hours, removed the helmet of Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph, then swung it at him and struck him in the head in the last seconds of Cleveland’s 21-7 win over Pittsburgh. It was not as bad as it could have been—Rudolph said he was fine after the game—but it marks one of the more notable incidents of extracurricular football violence in a long time.

Antonio Smith swung Richie Incognito’s helmet at him in 2013. In 2006, Albert Haynesworth stomped on a helmetless Andre Gurode’s head, which netted Haynesworth a five-game suspension. Matt Millen, when he was a player, once punched the Patriots’ GM. Because of the fine line between controlled and uncontrolled violence, punishments are usually doled out harshly to establish the difference. Football players are always in vulnerable situations on the field and, really, the sport rests on players not injecting more potential for injuries. It is already a violent, grim sport, and it sits on shaky ground because it relies on players to not do what Garrett did on Thursday and make it more violent outside the confines of play.

Even if these sorts of incidents have happened before, this one is different: Garrett is one of the best players in football, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, who is both athletically gifted and known as a cerebral player. Losing him for the rest of the season—to briefly address the football aspect of this—is a massive blow for a Browns team trying to salvage a season that appeared lost until a recent two-game winning streak. Garrett, who apologized Friday morning, is one of three players suspended for their involvement in the ugly incident. Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey has been suspended three games for kicking Garrett in the head during the brawl. Browns defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi got one game for pushing Rudolph. Garrett, however, is the only one of the three whose career path changed Thursday. He will be gone for the rest of 2019, pending appeal, and will have to meet with the commissioner’s office before reinstatement. Whether he is suspended for as many games as Vontaze Burfict—who was suspended for a record of (at least) 12 games earlier this season for repeated dirty hits—remains to be seen. Before Burfict’s suspension, Haynesworth’s five games was the longest ban for an on-field incident.

Garrett is a great young player, a potential superstar in a market that loves football and is desperate for a savior. He will probably still be all of those things, but it seems far away at the moment. This is what one of the most talented players in the sport will be known for until further notice. He also did it in a nationally televised rivalry game, adding to the attention on the incident. There will be a lot of debate about the particulars—Rudolph appeared to try to pull Garrett’s helmet off first, and he is reportedly facing a fine for doing so. What Rudolph did was unnecessary, but it occasionally happens on a football field. What Garrett did does not.

In August 2018, I spent some time with Garrett during training camp for a profile. It focused on a few things that I came to like about him: He had a habit of showing up at pickup basketball games and dunking on random Texas A&M students even after his college days. He was thoughtful. He likes poetry and dinosaurs. The problem is that none of this matters here. There are a lot of people who are likable off the field yet can lose their cool on it, or who play with an aggression that they don’t have off the field. Garrett loves boxing and fighting sports and may be the only person under 30 who I’ve talked about the fight game with in the past two years. “It would have been so fun to go one-on-one for 12 rounds [with Anthony Joshua or Deontay Wilder] to see who takes it,” he told me. “I think it about it every now and then. Those guys have similar builds to me.” This part of the story did not age well after Thursday.

The other part of the story that sticks with me is from his defensive line coach at the time, Clyde Simmons, who spent quite a long time in our conversation talking about what Garrett needed to improve on: getting, well, meaner when it comes to engaging with his opponents: “There’s an unspoken code in football in what you will allow someone to do to you. If somebody’s out there cheapshotting and playing dirty, you are the only person that’s going to stop that,” Simmons told me. “I think he’s learning the ways—not of retaliation—but in making them understand, I’m not that guy. At some point you have to stand up and say, ‘I’m not taking that crap. I’ll be here all day.’” Simmons told me then that most of the time, a few choice words will establish this. “If not there are other things you can do, but I won’t be getting into that.”

In September, Garrett accrued fines for late hits and a personal foul and told reporters he wouldn’t change his playing style, even though he knows how “protected” quarterbacks are. “I might get an unnecessary roughness every three or four games—I won’t make it a habit, it’s not something I want to do—but if that’s what happens and I’m still making big plays consistently, then I guess that’s my toll,” he said.

I thought a lot Thursday night about what Simmons told me and what has happened in the 15 months since we talked—when Garrett went from a player who frustrated the coaching staff with his lack of on-field aggression to a player who may come to typify losing your cool on a football field in the modern era. Then, you remember that fine line between controlled and uncontrolled violence and realize how quickly one side can blur into the other.

Lombardi, Maraniss wrote, “distinguished controlled violence from brutality, which he said ‘ultimately defeats itself’ but he did not try to minimize the role of violence. To approach football any other way, he said, ‘Would be idiotic.’”

Myles Garrett defeated himself on Thursday because he did not walk that fine line well enough. It will likely follow him for the rest of his career.