Receivers’ Lives Matter

The NFL Gives Us Bloodsport and We Cheer

If one game encapsulated the best and worst of the NFL, it was last night’s playoff game between Pittsburgh Steelers visiting the Cincinnati Bengals. The best is a short list: two teams giving it everything they had in the rain; a backup quarterback and his offense struggling through three quarters only to lead the Bengals back in the closing minutes; a starting quarterback returning from injury to finally win it for the Steelers.

The worst is what we need to talk about. The game became bloodsport.

Yet the bloodsport culture between the Steelers and Bengals began long before last night’s “disgusting” affair. If the media pushes a conversation that only speaks to Vontaze Burfict’s final hit — which stole the Bengals’ defeat from the jaws of victory — then we miss out on a meaningful opportunity to reflect on the complicit forces in the game’s growing grotesque nature.

For the Steelers and Bengals, the bloodsport began ten years ago in 2005 playoffs. Again in Cincinnati and on the first pass from Bengals’ QB Carson Palmer, the Steelers’ Kimo von Oelhoffen intentionally went for Palmer’s knee after he’d released the ball. Initially Palmer’s surgeon described the damage as potentially career-ending (thankfully it wasn’t). von Oelhoffen wasn’t penalized for the hit. The Steelers would pull the upset. And Cincinnati (the team, the city, the fans… myself included) have not forgotten.

Over the next decade, the rivalry eclipsed any sort of respectful matchup and consistently grew more violent. Even as the players changed, the environment remained. Even as the rules changed (low hits on Quarterbacks are now illegal), this rivalry became pure hate. And no one stopped to denounce this rivalry’s culture. Even after this season’s final regular season matchup between the teams “sported” a massive brawl, the response was to make sure the referees for the playoff matchup made sure the teams kept their mutual distance during warmups.

And then the scab was picked. As Cincinnati desperately strived to get back into the game, Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier pointed his helmet at Bengals running back Giovani Bernard head. It was a calculated tackle that left Bernard motionless. The announcers, Phil Simms and Jim Nance, argued it was a legal hit because Bernard had a moment to brace. And in 2015, knowing what we know about concussions and using a helmet as a weapon, neither announcer was brave enough to suggest the gruesome nature of the tackle had no place in the game. And just like Palmer’s tackle ten years ago, Shazier and the Steelers were not penalized. In fact, the Steelers were rewarded with the ball since Bernard’s lifeless body fumbled it after the impact.

Like any bloodsport, the players (and fans… including myself) wanted revenge. And when Vontaze Burfict sacked Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, which left Roethlisberger injured, we cheered. If you want to condemn that — as I certainly do now a day later — then please admit to the larger context: the NFL allowed this football rivalry to turn into bloodsport. I’m ashamed I participated.

We need to blame the coaches. It’s safe to assume the Steelers know how to get under the Bengals’ skin. It’s surely part of their strategy. Not once, but twice, Steelers coaches attempted to incite Bengals players. I hear no one in the media speaking to this on the morning after other than passing reports of fines. On the Bengals’ side, the organization is notorious for taking “high risk” players that other football teams won’t gamble on. Players with great athleticism but volatile otherwise. Maybe it’s time to admit a lack of discipline is the reason the Bengals never advance in the playoffs.

We need to blame the referees and the NFL. Not calling penalties… heck, not ejecting players for the hits we saw last night means the NFL is complicit. There will be fines and strong words. But the NFL thinks violence sells.

And that brings me to the most important point: we need to blame ourselves. We vote with our wallets, out tickets, our televisions. By tuning into the sport, we are saying this culture is ok.

Without change then someday a receiver going over the middle is going to be killed. And when it happens we better be ready to admit we are all Vontaze Burfict.


As a game designer, I look to mechanics that encourage players toward different outcomes. American football should borrow from international football the concept of yellow and red cards — a system that’s purely designed to prevent dangerous play.

It’s the NFL’s responsibility to change the game (and by “NFL” I mean many more than just Roger Goodell… it’s the owners, the players and especially the fans who pay for this entertainment). There can’t be many who want more bloodsport like what was witnessed between the Steelers and Bengals.

Here’s how a card system would work in my mind:

  • A yellow card is a warning. Two yellow cards in the same game and the player is ejected. Two yellow cards in the same season and the player is suspended one game.
  • A red card is an automatic ejection plus a one game suspension. Two red cards in the same season and the player is suspended for the remainder of the year.
  • Unlike international football (aka soccer), any carded player can be replaced with a substitute (the team does not have to play a man down).
  • Anytime a standing player without the ball is hit in the head or knee — or is simply defenseless like a receiver — it’s an automatic red card. By “hit” I mean first point of contact by a tackler.
  • Anytime a tackler leads with his helmet, it’s an automatic yellow card.
  • Anytime a tackler leads with his helmet and hits an opposing player carrying the ball in his helmet, it’s an automatic red card.
  • Anytime two or more players engage in fighting after the whistle, anyone who makes contact with a player from the other team automatically receives a yellow card.
  • All of the above has to be reviewable by instant replay.

A system of cards and their repercussions might achieve the following positive outcomes:

  • fewer injuries and head-rattling highlights which incite a bloodsport culture
  • pressure moves away from the league office to account for every fine or suspension as the card system has mandatory repercussions that fans and players understand

A card system isn’t perfect. It could encourage flops where players fake injuries. Maybe coaches find ways to exploit gaps in the rules. But the overall idea certainly pushes the league toward meaningful and transparent rules, ones that shift the game away from bloodsport and back to blocking and tackling. Assuming that’s what we — the fans — truly want.

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