By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) Pittsburgh Steelers safety Mike Mitchell has a problem.
It’s a player problem. It’s an NFL problem. It’s a football problem. Maybe the bigger problem is that those three entities don’t view it quite the same, if even as a problem at all.
Mitchell vented on social media and in person to the assembled media this week about how the league has handled particularly violent play. His frustrations came to a head following a Week 13 in the NFL in which Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was suspended for one game after an especially dirty and egregious late hit on Bills defensive back Tre’Davious White that concussed him. A day later, Cincinnati safety George Iloka and Pittsburgh receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster each leveled hits on separate opponents that 20 years ago might have made it on one of those $19.95 greatest hits videos advertised all over TV.
Instead, they also had a one-game suspension levied on them both. Iloka’s was later dropped. Mitchell was justifiably angry Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Mitchell spoke further about the problem in NSFW fashion in front of microphones and cameras.
“At the end of the day this is football,” he said. “If you want to see flag football then let’s take our pads off because that would make it easier for me. Now I don’t gotta wear heavy sh**. But give us flags for me to pull off because that way I know what we’re playing.”
Mitchell has a point, as the mixed messages the league keeps sending are stupid. His is a criticism of the NFL’s precarious position it has put itself in of late, trying to somehow find a balance between the appeal of watching a smashing of fast, large dudes and the science that tells us that smashing is shortening those dudes’ lives and sometimes making the last years of those lives a living hell. It’s all a product of the league’s success growing beyond itself, pro football becoming so massive, so religious that what drew viewers to it started to become a problematic feature once some worshippers started becoming conscious of the price.
The NFL being the ham-fisted entity devoid of human feelings that it is short circuited at the onrush of spectators calling its bread-and-butter literally toxic. To fix all this, it overcompensated (as did the NCAA), instituting rules making so many of the open-field hits that built NFL Films worthy of penalties on the field and off. Now players like Mitchell no longer know what their jobs are, and it’s hard to blame their frustration at being told they can no longer do what they been conditioned since Pop Warner to do.
“I’m gonna mess around and get hurt trying to protect an offensive player because he’s running an over route,” Mitchell said. “Damn it, your quarterback shouldn’t have threw that ball messed up. That happened two years ago. I’m not joking at all. Andy Dalton threw a ball to Tyler Eifert two years ago. Tyler Eifert had to dive for it. I was aiming for his gut, but if he don’t dive, he don’t get hit in the head. That’s 50 grand out of my pocket though, because Andy throws a bad ball. Make that make sense. And at first you’re taking our money, but now I got a**holes like Matt Hasselbeck calling me a dirty player and trying my character, and we never met before.”
What’s often now “dirty” from defensive players was celebrated not long ago and still celebrated by many fans today who long for an NFL that lets players do what they willingly acknowledge is a painful endeavor that they love with the understanding that they may get broken on the field or some years after they retire. “They know what they signed up for” is the typical remark from the unthinking, unsympathetic Joe and Jane Q, fans who will trade a stranger’s health for the primal monster truck thrill component of football beyond the X-and-O strategy. Leave health out of it, they hand wring, longing for the Big Tobacco days of the NFL.
I won’t school marm here and act like huge hits don’t appeal to me. There was a VHS of them in the drawer under the basement TV as a kid. They’re intoxicating at times, but I can’t unknow what I’m seeing now that I know the reservations of the medical community. And I grapple with the moral duty of not encouraging the destruction of people for my entertainment while respecting someone’s calculated, vocal desire to willingly participate in it and not have his opportunity to make a living compromised.
Football seems set on trending toward the appearance of more and more safety. I use “appearance” because the NFL is nothing if not a PR machine, and looking bad or legally liable when it comes to player health matters more to Goodell and Co. than the actual health.
By its very nature football can’tbe safer, of course, unless it were to go to Mitchell’s suggested flag format. Sometimes it calls into question whether it’s more absurd to bubble wrap violence-by-design than to let it be what it was intentioned. Sometimes either option is causing fewer participants at the youth level and fewer viewers at the pro level.
“We’ve got to do better as players when we sign the next CBA,” Mitchell said.
The current one is in effect through the 2020 season.
His demand and his parallel earlier tweet speak to the problem of the NFLPA, a players’ union that looks laughable compared to that of baseball and basketball. This CBA that Mitchell is lamenting is pretty bad for the players, mostly financially, as Patrick Hruby thoroughly documented for Vice Sports two years ago, but also in terms of granting commissioner Roger Goodell carte blanche disciplinary power.
“We’ve got to get better leadership as who’s running the league,” Mitchell told reporters. “Obviously, everybody from fans to owners to players are all disappointed in Roger Goodell. We’ve just got to do better. We can’t have a guy where you just hand out discipline on how you see fit. There needs to be a set guideline of how we do what we do.”
Otherwise you get someone getting the same suspension for a pretty textbook block that just happened to cause a player to be removed on a cart as one of the league’s frat bro darlings who succeeded in a conscious attempt to injure an unaware opponent in a non-football play. That was a suspension his victim called “a joke” from a “dirty player.” Plus, there’s a further tug-o-war over making the game safer versus a return to the savage.
That inconsistency is a problem. A problem for Mike Mitchell, whose demand to be allowed to batter his brain and body is ironically a voice of reason. And minds like his are a problem for the league. And his is a problem for the players and the divided fans.
Ultimately, it all may be most problematic for a game no longer sure of its own identity.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.