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Bucky Gleason: Steelers-Bengals matchup latest example of league gone haywire

If he had a little more time to process a game the Steelers won with a field goal as time expired, a game in which a linebacker from each side was carted off the field and sent to the hospital, perhaps Ben Roethlisberger would have offered more insight and come up with a better answer.

The Steelers-Bengals game was brutal by any definition, an unsightly display of testosterone and violence that spilled onto the field on Monday Night Football. Anyone watching from home or inside the stadium could see the two teams had exceeded football's accepted level of aggression.

Pittsburgh linebacker Ryan Shazier was in the hospital amid fears he suffered a serious spinal injury after lowering his head, dismissed as a freak injury. Bengals back Joe Mixon was gone with a concussion and teammate Vontaze Burfict followed after getting blindsided by an illegal block from JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Roethlisberger, who considered retirement before the season amid concerns about long-term health effects of concussions, had been roughed up before hitting Antonio Brown with the tying touchdown on a play in which the NFL's best receiver was dropped by George Ilaka's dangerous head-to-head hit.

Shortly after the Steelers won on their next possession, ending a game that included Big Ben surpassing 50,000 yards passing in his 14-year career, Roethlisberger was asked by ESPN sideline reporter Lisa Salters about the viciousness and brutality of the two teams involved.

"It's AFC North football," he said.

"That's it?" Salters asked.

"Yup," Roethlisberger said.

Only that's not that simple. During their postgame news conferences, the coaches on opposite sidelines Monday night refused to engage beneath the surface when asked about the violence. In a nutshell, they said it comes with playing football and anything beyond that belonged in the hands of the NFL.

The collection of adjectives used to describe the action during and after the game: disgusting, despicable, shameful, ugly, sickening. And that was just from play-by-play man Sean McDonough and his ESPN partner Jon Gruden. Is that really the message the NFL wanted to send to a primetime national television audience?

League officials frequently are accused of protecting the NFL shield when often it's the shield protecting them. They hide behind its logo while claiming there are inherent risks that comes with playing the sport. Every player understands as much long before collecting his first paycheck.

True, the NFL has been guilty of failing to respond swiftly or sternly enough when players cross fuzzy lines separating physical play and intent to injure. At times, league discipline has been misguided or failed to meet the crime. Tom Brady was suspended for four games over improperly inflated footballs while others who committed more egregious offenses walked away with little or no punishment.

Rob Gronkowski made a boneheaded decision Sunday when he walloped Bills rookie Tre'Davious White on the back of the head. To me, it was a cowardly act born from frustration in a moment of temporary insanity. Gronk has been a physical player, but he's never been a dirty player. Still, he was wrong and deserved his suspension.

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But the deeper problem in the NFL these days is the same thing that infiltrated the NHL over the years: In general, players show little respect for one another or their sport. They allow their precious egos and the macho mentality that comes with playing contact sports to interfere with common sense. They react without thinking.

Whether they're in high school or the pros, players take great delight in delivering big hits to the opposition with a warrior mentality that coaches demand and their teammates adore. It's as if inflicting pain on the other team confirms toughness and commitment while leading to higher status in the locker room.

Bet the ranch on Smith-Schuster being applauded behind closed doors for laying out Burfict after unloading on the linebacker with a head shot to the linebacker's chin. In some eyes, it was justice served. Burfict himself is known as a dirty player, which led to him paying more than $800,000 in fines for various transgressions.

For Smith-Schuster, it was an opportunity to flatten Burfict and stand over him in some shallow show of dominance, as if he settled the score for any wide receiver who was crushed by the linebacker while daring to run across the middle. It explains why Brown repeatedly screamed "karma" in  Smith-Schuster's direction during postgame interviews.

In effect, Brown's classlessness after the game trumped Smith-Schuster's classlessness during the game after an illegal hit that left a player in the hospital. Players take numbers and exact revenge. Ask former Bills head coach Gregg Williams, who was suspended for putting bounties on the heads of opposing players. He's still coaching.

The NFL deserves its daily dose of criticism for various shortcomings, starting with its casual approach toward player safety. The league claims to care about the welfare of players when really it cares more about protecting profits. The league initially wanted people to believe CTE didn't exist until diseased brains extracted from corpses of former players started piling up, leading to a massive lawsuit.

To be fair, the league has implemented rules designed to protect quarterbacks. It has regulated hits against defenseless players. It has come down on players who lead with their heads when tackling. It has increased fines and suspensions, yet the violence continues while its coaches and participants slide under the cover of "that's football."

No, that's football at its worst.

Shazier broke a fundamental rule when lowering his head when making contact. Other hits in the Steelers-Bengals game could have been prevented if players were more responsible and not hell-bent on injuring their opponents. Cincinnati had 173 yards in penalties, a franchise record and the most of any team this season.

It could take an NFL player dying on the field from a blow to the head before the rest get the message. Numerous high school players already have died in precisely that manner, including one in Western New York. Fans usually cringe upon hearing the news and return to the safety of their fantasy leagues.

Of course, it would be hypocritical for anyone in the media to slam football in general, and the NFL in particular, without accepting some responsibility. You're darned right the media has played a role. It's difficult to reconcile making a living from scheduled violence, but people need to know the good and the bad.

Monday night, it was ugly.

Without climbing atop some "what about the children" soapbox, the NFL should brace for long-term effects that come with how the game is played. More parents every year are discouraging or preventing their kids from playing football. Participation numbers are down at youth and high school levels.

It's bound to affect professional football in the next quarter-century, assuming the NFL still exists. Here's hoping, if Roethlisberger's grandchildren ask him someday why his company folded, he has a better answer than, "It was the AFC North."

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