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DOUBLE STANDARD IN AARON DONALD CASE: NOT A GOOD LOOK FOR NFL
The all-world defender deserves a two-game ban for his violent helmet swing, based on precedent, but the league cowered in not enforcing a Conduct Policy clause — thus doing the Rams a huge favor
A football helmet, I think we can agree, is a lethal weapon when swung at the head of another player. Made of molded polycarbonate, the shell weighs almost five pounds and, upon concussive impact, could cause the very neurological problems it is designed to prevent. This is why the NFL issued a six-game suspension in 2019 to Cleveland’s Myles Garrett, who ripped off the lid of Pittsburgh’s Mason Rudolph and smashed it against the quarterback’s unprotected skull.
“Assault!” they cried throughout the league.
All of Roger Goodell’s men should be similarly alarmed by the dangerous actions of the sport’s greatest defensive player, the terrifying Aaron Donald, who wrecked the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl LVI and threatened to decapitate a few of them the other day. In a melee during a joint practice session, Donald clutched Bengals helmets in each of his enormous hands — as captured in a viral video and still photographs — and swung one shell violently into a scrum of scuffling players, connecting at least once atop an opponent’s helmet. Imagine if he’d wielded such a menacing object while walking down a street in that parochial Ohio city. He’d be in county lockup as we speak.
Certainly, in a league that should apply the same disciplinary logic used in the Garrett case, Donald deserves a suspension of two games, if not longer. It would be a critical blow to the Los Angeles Rams in their quest to become the first repeat champion in 18 years. The only difference: Garrett’s helmet swing conked Rudolph upside the head in a regular-season game, whereas Donald’s swing happened during a preseason drill and fortunately landed against another helmet. Still, an attack is an attack, and a league that claims to care deeply about CTE and brain damage — players suffered more than 1,000 concussions between the 2015 and 2021 regular seasons — should act accordingly to establish another safety precedent.
But when the issue is player conduct, the NFL is nothing if not erratic in its punishment assessments. In the latest rulebook disconnect, the league is not responsible for policing players and imposing discipline for football crimes committed during joint practices. Well, why the hell not? Because, for some reason, Goodell and his men defer to the teams. Never mind that brawls — full-scale and mano-a-mano — have broken out regularly at camp sites during dual rehearsals. Never mind, as Rams coach Sean McVay said in what represents incriminating testimony against his own superstar, that players are vulnerable to injuries of all sorts when violence breaks out. The league should step in. Now.
“I know how volatile and how fragile it is where you hit it the wrong way, you break your hand and it could affect a guy’s chance to be OK — or God forbid, someone gets hit in the head with a helmet off,” McVay said. “I just see guys swinging and some guys have helmets on, some don’t. You never know what can occur. And my biggest concern is just unnecessary injuries for people we’re counting on, whether it’s for our team or the other team. I was just glad when everything got broken up, and my understanding was that everybody is OK.”
To be clear, nothing is OK with how this went down. The league is letting the Rams handle any discipline for Donald — what, make him sing his alma mater’s fight song? — and details will be kept private. “The incident will be addressed internally, and any discipline will remain in-house,” a team spokesperson told ESPN on Friday, while McVay already was scaling down his concerns in saying, “This’ll be a little blip on the radar an hour from now for our guys.” A blip? No, it’s a real bad look for Donald, the Rams and the league. In a year in which Goodell has outsourced judge-and-jury duties, turning the Deshaun Watson case into a settlement-brokered debacle, now he’s letting an elite player get away with a double standard. The NFL wouldn’t want Donald banished on opening night, would it, with the Buffalo Bills at SoFi Stadium in a possible Super Bowl preview? This is a league with $113 billion in new media deals. The least Goodell can do is pretend he cares about governance and fair play.
Just as the commissioner could have stepped in with an indefinite ban of Watson after independent arbitrator Sue L. Robinson’s original six-game ban — but he didn’t, settling for an 11-game suspension and $5 million fine — he should have taken charge in the Donald affair. He shirked his duties by not activating a clause in the Personal Conduct Policy that prohibits “violent or threatening behavior toward another employee or a third party in any workplace setting.” More specifically, the rulebook states: “A player must not use a helmet that is no longer worn by anyone as a weapon to strike, swing at, or throw at an opponent.” All Goodell had to do was cue up the viral video, let Robinson rule and either accept her decision or enact his own ruling.
He decided to pass, taking the easy way out as Labor Day weekend nears and the season prepares to kick off. Will Mike Tirico, the bland play-by-play voice in NBC’s new booth, even bring up Donald’s helmet swing during the first Thursday night telecast?
By ducking out, Goodell avoids what was becoming an ugly commentary trail. Race isn’t relevant to the act of a helmet swing, but because Donald is Black, ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith and Ryan Clark made it a Black vs. White controversy. Their network colleague, Adam Schefter, labeled Donald’s act as an “assault.” They also referenced former NFL offensive lineman, Geoff Schwartz, who has a podcast and a column and tweeted that Donald was “out of control and dangerous” while deserving of a suspension. Anyone who swings a helmet, regardless of race, is out of control and dangerous and warrants a ban.
Clark, the former NFL safety, appeared on Smith’s show, “First Take,” and noted that Schefter and Schwartz are White. “I saw what Geoff tweeted. We start getting into where Adam Schefter is saying ‘assault,’ where all of these people are saying these things are criminal,” Clark said. “To me, that puts these players in a position where you’re making them or you’re putting them in a category with people that rob, with people that steal, with people that assault, with people that commit domestic violence. And we have to be very careful when we start to toe that line.”
Said Smith: “I appreciate the fact that RC reminded the world that when you’re labeling guys like that and accusing them of criminality with the verbiage that you use, that’s a problem. And we should have a heightened level of sensitivity to that as Black men. When you’ve got white analysts talking that way and using that language about Black dudes, that’s another level. I’m not accusing any analyst of racism or anything like that, I’m just telling them how we take it. Whoever sent that tweet out (Schwartz) and whoever thinks like that, now I want to see if you say that about the White dude that does it. Because if I don’t hear the same verbiage, if I don’t hear the same language if something like that happens with somebody White, now I’m looking at you with a raised eyebrow and saying, ‘what the hell you trying to say?’ ’’
What I’m trying to say, as a centrist: The National Football League, a supposed guardian of competitive integrity, should treat Donald like any other player guilty of “violent or threatening behavior.” The league has failed to do so, preferring to protect a superstar and a superteam that won a Super Bowl in a massive media market. Goodell has done a disservice to the other 31 franchises.
Aaron Donald, in the end, may as well have been Ronald McDonald. If the Rams start fast and proceed to another title, remember how the NFL helped them avoid an 0-2 start. A clean beginning to the season, this is not.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.