In the aftermath of Saturday night’s Steelers-Bengals debacle, the NFL was publicly wringing its hands by issuing suspensions and threatening fines. Privately, the NFL was rubbing its palms together with glee.
It’s the post-Concussion equivalent of the Bone Crunchers phenomenon, from the days when the NFL not only downplayed the long-term effects of brain injuries but also sold highlight videos featuring the most spectacular concussion-inducing hits. When it comes to players and coaches acting like hooligans during games, the NFL has imposed punishment while quietly reveling in the afterglow of a game that held an audience of 27.5 million during the worst of the bad behavior not in spite of it but perhaps because of it.
The revelry isn’t all that quiet. The NFL morning show that used to be called something else but that now has another name that eventually will be something else played earlier in the hour a package of NFL Films video and sound from the Steelers-Bengals game. And, of course, it featured not examples of football skill and uplifting moments among teammates but the various instances of discipline-inducing conflict.
It starts with a shot of Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak pulling the hair of Bengals safety Reggie Nelson, and then the two of them and others tussling on the sideline as an official tries to pull them apart. It then shows Steelers linebackers coach Joey Porter smugly surrounded by Bengals players as the game-deciding moment arrives, with Bengals cornerback Pacman Jones charging in and making contact with an official while protesting Porter’s presence on the field.
Next, Bengals running back Jeremy Hill confronts multiple Steelers following the legal-but-devastating hit applied by Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier to Bengals running back Gio Bernard, with Hill repeatedly saying, “That’s dirty!” as an official pulls him away.
Then comes Bengals coach Marvin Lewis trying to calm down linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who eventually breaks away from Lewis to yell directly to the NFL Films camera, “They want a wrestling match! They want a wrestling match! We gonna give to to ’em!”
And of course that’s followed by a shot of Burfict’s finishing move on Steelers receiver Antonio Brown. Which, given that Burfict considers it a wrestling match, makes Pacman’s allegation that Brown was “faking” his injury even more understandable.
The package then cuts to the anguish of Hill, whose fumble set up the drive that resulted in the back-to-back penalties (one on Burfict, one on Pacman) that gave the Steelers the game.
It ends with Steelers coach Mike Tomlin meeting Lewis at the middle of the field saying, “I’m sorry about that. I’ll talk to you later.”
The NFL Films highlight package played on NFL Network contained not a single image of the uncanny (and, frankly, not valid) touchdown catch from Steelers receiver Martavis Bryant, who caught the ball behind his leg, got two feet down, and flipped forward out of the end zone.
If a fight had broken out immediately after the score, then maybe it would have made the cut.
Next on the NFL morning show came more highlights under the NFL Replay “Game of the Week” heading. Think about that one for a second. The Seahawks and Vikings played a subzero game for the ages in Minnesota, featuring plenty of big plays and clean hits and memorable images and, ultimately, a devastating miss of a field goal that would have allowed the Vikings to reverse a 31-point blowout from only five weeks before. But the “Game of the Week,” marketed after the fact with the worst moments of the game not the best, gets more attention.
Here’s where I’m tempted to say that the NFL can’t have it both ways. But the NFL is having it both ways, because the NFL knows that, while it has to act like it doesn’t condone thuggish behavior, millions of people love to watch it.