NFL Lets Rob Gronkowski and Patriots Off Easy with 1-Game Suspension

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistDecember 4, 2017

ORCHARD PARK, NY - DECEMBER 3:  Rob Gronkowski #87 of the New England Patriots talks with back judge Dino Paganelli #105 during the fourth quarter against the Buffalo Bills on December 3, 2017 at New Era Field in Orchard Park, New York.  (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

The one-game suspension the NFL handed to New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski on Monday for his juvenile, dangerous shoulder to the head of an unsuspecting, defenseless opponent was shamefully insufficient by 2017 standards.

How so? Let's start with what we know about those types of blows.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative disease discovered only relatively recently in athletes and thought to be caused by repeated blows to the head, may have negatively affected the lives of dozens of professional football players.

In a study published this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association, CTE was diagnosed in 87 percent of 202 deceased former football players. There's a link between the head trauma that occurs in football and CTE, and—per the Mayo Clinic—there are links between CTE and memory loss, substance abuse, irritability, motor impairment, dementia, depression and suicidal thoughts or behavior.

Not even the NFL denies the link between football and CTE at this point, which is why concussions are undoubtedly the biggest threat to the league and its players.

That also explains why the league continues to introduce changes to rules and regulations, aiming to protect the brains of the men who risk their well-being every Sunday.

On Sunday, 1,288 NFL players took the field, knowing the inherently violent nature of the sport they play puts them at risk of suffering head injuries. When large men collide with other large men, concussions are inevitable. The league and its players are responsible for limiting those incidents by abiding by rules designed to protect those who are defenseless.

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Inevitably, those rules are violated. Players, traveling at hyper speed, sometimes miss their marks or overcommit on tackles.

That's one thing, and it should and often does result in discipline. But what Gronkowski did was another thing.

The league's most lovable party animal might not be worried about his own brain—he essentially likened concussions to hangovers in a 2015 interview with Jim Rome of CBS Sports—but that doesn't give him the right to viciously target another man's head.

That's what Gronkowski did Sunday in Buffalo when, after a play was over, he took six steps in a two-second span and slammed Tre'Davious White's head with the full force of his body.

Gronkowski weighs 265 pounds. The Buffalo Bills rookie cornerback weighs 192. Lying out of bounds, White had no reason to expect such a hit was coming. His head absorbed two shocking blows in a split-second—first when Gronkowski's hulking shoulder struck him from behind and then when his helmet hit the turf.

As part of his apology, Gronkowski said "emotions and frustration" inspired his tantrum. This was a heinous act that occurred well after the play had concluded. Gronkowski had time to consider the ramifications of his actions. He wasn't trying to make a tackle or force a fumble in the fog of football. He was only trying to blow off steam in response to what he perceived to be pass interference, and now White—a 22-year-old with a base salary of $465,000—is in the concussion protocol.

Gronkowski's own head coach, Bill Belichick, called the move "bulls--t."

The NFL is supposed to be a brotherhood. Players risk their futures together, regardless of the colors they wear. Most of the time, the respect they have for one another is palpable. That's what makes an act like this so exceptional and egregious.

This was the type of reckless act that's committed by bullies and dolts. It showed a tremendous lack of respect for the game and those who make a living off it, and it put a young man in peril.

White is not set for life financially. He is a father, with an infant son at home. Gronkowski's unnecessary and not-football-related fit of rage might have increased White's chances of developing brain damage.

Regardless of whether he fears or respects it, Gronkowski knows what CTE is. He knows what it has done to dozens of players who came before him. His failure to consider that in the several moments that passed before he used his body to slam a fellow player in the head shows just how little he cares or just how little self-control he possesses.

There's no room for that in football. Not in 2017. Heck, there wasn't even room for it over a decade ago, when Tennessee Titans defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth was suspended five games for stomping on Andre Gurode's head after the whistle.

And yet Monday, Gronkowski's wrestling move was met with a slap on the wrist, as the league suspended the four-time Pro Bowler for just one game.

That's half of what Denver Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib and Oakland Raiders wide receiver Michael Crabtree were hit with after the two engaged in a fight last week that involved zero cheap shots or sucker punches and included not one clear-cut victim. Those suspensions were reduced on appeal from two games to one, but Gronkowski's offense was plainly more flagrant.

In September, a high-profile helmet-to-helmet hit by Chicago Bears linebacker Danny Trevathan against the Green Bay Packers' Davante Adams also resulted in a two-game suspension (it, too, was reduced to one game on appeal). But that hit took place during a play—not after it.

On Monday, NFL vice president of football operations Jon Runyan admonished Gronkowski in a letter.

"Your actions were not incidental, could have been avoided and placed the opposing player at risk of serious injury," Runyan said. "The Competition Committee has clearly expressed its goal of 'eliminating flagrant hits that have no place in our game.' Those hits include the play you were involved in yesterday."

Calling what Gronkowski did a "hit" is also a problem. It wasn't a play or a tackle; it was a player throwing a childish tantrum after a play had ended and endangering a peer in the process.

Even without a track record of rules violations, Gronkowski deserved a more substantial punishment. The league had a chance to use this episode to show professional football has no room for that type of barbarism, but forcing Gronk to sit out one game won't accomplish anything.

What Haynesworth did 11 years ago was not five times worse than what Gronkowski did Sunday. Gurode wasn't wearing a helmet, but a stomp isn't the same as a shoulder to the head, and helmets can only do so much to limit the damage that is done by unnecessary and unexpected head shots.

Gronkowski got off easy, which will only make it harder for the NFL to rid itself of the vicious acts that continue to endanger the future of the game and those who play it.


Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.