The NFL announced it has suspended Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster for one game. The discipline stems from a vicious block Smith-Schuster put on Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict in a violent, ugly Monday Night Football matchup in Week 13.
Smith-Schuster appealed the suspension. James Thrash, an appeals officer jointly appointed by the NFL and NFLPA, has denied the appeal. Smith-Schuster will miss the Steelers’ Week 14 matchup against the Ravens.
Bengals safety George Iloka was also handed a one-game suspension for striking a defenseless player in the head and neck area, but had his overturned, and will pay a fine instead:
#Bengals S George Iloka had his 1-game suspension overturned. He’ll now pay a $35,464.50 fine.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) December 6, 2017
Jon Runyan, the NFL’s vice president of football operations, said in his letter to Smith-Schuster detailing the reasons for the suspension that the hit Smith-Schuster put on Burfict was “a violent and unnecessary blindside shot” to a defenseless player.
“The contact you made with your opponent placed the opposing player at risk of serious injury and could have been avoided,” the letter reads.
Why did the league suspend Smith-Schuster? It centers around this block.
Smith-Schuster led with his shoulder. But he made helmet-to-helmet contact with Burfict, who instantly appeared to be concussed.
Smith-Schuster then stood over a dazed Burfict and stared him down. He was flagged for unnecessary roughness and taunting, but he was not ejected from the game.
Burfict was carted off the field and ruled out of the game with a head injury.
Burfict has quite a history with the Steelers. But Smith-Schuster said after the game that he didn’t know Burfict was the player on the ground.
Smith-Schuster also apologized for taunting Burfict.
I don’t have any intentions to hurt anyone when I play football. I didn’t mean to hurt Vontez Burfict, I just wanted to throw a block for my teammate. I apologize for standing over him and that isn’t me. Praying he gets better.— JuJu Smith-Schuster (@TeamJuJu) December 5, 2017
Why didn’t the league just fine Smith-Schuster? The NFL decides discipline on a case-by-case basis.
There have been a rash of suspensions lately for actions the league says have no place in the game. Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib and Raiders wide receiver Michael Crabtree both received two-game suspensions after a fight between the two set off a full-on brawl between the two teams. Those suspensions were each reduced to one game on appeal.
The NFL issued a one-game suspension to Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski this week for dropping an elbow to the back of Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White’s head well after a play was over. White left the game with a concussion and remains in the protocol.
In Smith-Schuster’s case, it does not look like he intended to seriously injure Burfict. But that was the outcome, and it was obvious immediately. His decision to stand over Burfict and taunt him certainly didn’t help his case.
“Your conduct following the hit fell far below the high standards of sportsmanship expected of an NFL player,” Runyan’s letter to Smith-Schuster said.
Why does this matter? The NFL is under constant criticism, and rightfully so, for an inconsistent approach to protecting player safety. Smith-Schuster caused a serious injury and celebrated it.
Burfict’s injury wasn’t the only scary moment of the night. Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier had to be immobilized and taken from the field on a backboard after suffering a spinal injury on Monday night.
Shazier immediately grabbed his lower back and appeared unable to move his legs after the injury. It’s reportedly a spinal contusion for Shazier. He remained hospitalized on Tuesday morning, but he had feeling in his extremities.
The suspension sends a message that the league is making an effort to police player safety in ways it can control. But it has a long way to go.