Oakland Raiders’ linebacker Vontaze Burfict was recently hit with a season ending suspension for his helmet-to-helmet hit on Colts’ tight end Jack Doyle. Burfict has an infamous reputation for being a dirty player, exemplified with him being involved in nine previous incidents, costing him over $4 million in fines and suspensions. His most noteworthy transgression happened in 2016 when he was with the Cincinnati Bengals, where he cost them a playoff game against the Steelers for a dirty hit on star receiver Antonio Brown. Burfict and the NFLPA were scheduled to appeal the suspension on Oct. 8.
The vast majority of fans across the league, and even some players, think he shouldn’t be in the league, so why did John Gruden make him team captain? One could say it’s Gruden’s way of showing solidarity. However, this gesture shows the sentiments surrounding not only football, but sports fan culture in general.
The NFL has been involved in a lot of controversy in the last decade or so. Whether it be players getting in trouble, Colin Kaepernick, or head injuries, much of the discourse surrounding the league has been negative. Because of that, league officials have been trying their best to solve this through stricter policies, like giving out harsher fines to deter players from taking pot shots and tougher punishments for misconduct off the field. But despite all these efforts, the league still gets maligned by fans and players alike. Week after week, league referees have to deal with fans harassing them on social media for trying to do their jobs. While it’s annoying to see flags fly every play, the league is at least trying to address one of the many issues surrounding the game’s image. On top of all of this, they have to compete for screen time with the three other major leagues who don’t have the NFL’s baggage.
In this year’s week two matchup between the Houston Texans and New Orleans Saints, Texans’ receiver DeAndre Hopkins suplexed Saints’ safety Marcus Williams after Williams intercepted a pass from Texans’ Quarterback Deshaun Watson. While I get that Hopkins at the time was having a bad game and probably was frustrated, flagrantly body slamming a person on national television was out of line. A lot of Williams’ teammates definitely thought so, immediately swarming him as officials instantly came to break the two teams up, with Hopkins getting an unnecessary roughness call. During a post-game interview, Hopkins brushed off the situation, stating, “The ref said I couldn’t tackle like that…I guess I should play tag.” Fans from all over social media defended him, many of them whining about football “going soft.” Many of us watch football for its great athletes and dynamic playmaking. There are also many of us who just want gladiators in pads.
Something we don’t realize is that players who are coming up through youth programs take a lot of cues from the pros. Given Vontaze Burfict’s age, it wasn’t too long ago that he was watching guys like Ray Lewis and Junior Seau terrorize the league. These were two of the best linebackers the league has ever seen, both having shrines in Canton. Unfortunately, in the case of Seau, he wasn’t around to receive his golden jacket. Seau committed suicide in 2012, three years before his Hall of Fame induction.
Seau, like many players past and present, struggled with CTE, brain trauma that’s caused from repeated blows to the head. He was known for delivering brutal hits that took people out. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say it had an influence on Burfict’s style of play.
Vontaze Burfict is symptomatic of a culture that enables hyper violent behavior. What many of us don’t realize is without setting and enforcing proper boundaries, the game will only enable people like Burfict. This isn’t only bad for the NFL, but the game of football itself. So, before you pass judgement on him, we must ask ourselves: How do we prevent more Vontaze Burficts? The moment we ask that question is the moment we take steps to make the game we love safer for the next generation.