ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The next round of NFL playoff starts in a few days on Saturday. People are still talking about what happened last Saturday - a violent and unruly playoff game between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict was suspended for three games next season after his hit to the head of a defenseless Pittsburgh wide receiver. The game was a reminder of the thin line between controlled violence and sudden mayhem in an NFL game, both of which Americans can't stop watching. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Thirty-six-point-three million TV viewers watched the final contentious half hour of Pittsburg versus Cincinnati, people of all walks, vocations and political aspirations.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DONALD TRUMP: So I'm watching the game yesterday. What used to be considered a great tackle, now they tackle - oh, head-on-head collision - bing, flag.
GOLDMAN: For Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, Vontaze Burfict lowering his shoulder into Antonio Brown's head wasn't the problem. The penalty flag that followed was, and Trump turned it into political hay.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TRUMP: Football's become soft like our country has become soft. It's true. It's true.
GOLDMAN: Writer Jeanne Marie Laskas didn't see anything soft as she watched the game's violence unfold - some of it penalized, some of it not - and kept watching after Burfict's hit.
JEANNE MARIE LASKAS: It's noteworthy that we don't, as fans, turn off. In fact, that's when we tune in and then when I did. It's very exciting and outrageous and horrible.
GOLDMAN: And every instance of over-the-top, outside-the-rules NFL violence sends Laskas deeper into despair. She fell for the game a couple of decades ago when she moved to Pittsburgh. But then, in 2009, she wrote a seminal article in GQ about head trauma in football. She turned it into a book titled "Concussion," which was then turned into the current film of the same name. It's this side of Jeanne Marie Laskas that was frustrated by the Pittsburgh-Cincinnati game. At least two players were treated for possible concussions after sustaining the kind of brutal hits the NFL has vowed to control.
LASKAS: How can this still be going on? And here we are again. And what is it going to take for us as a culture to wake up? Some people say, someone needs to die on the field for us to finally say, OK, do we really want to be supporting this?
GOLDMAN: Television ratings for last weekend's games, including the rumble in Cincinnati, were up 11 percent from last year, which doesn't surprise former TV network sports producer Terry O'Neill. His take on Pittsburgh versus Cincinnati - the Bengals needed a player leader in the huddle.
O'NEILL: Who could've taken Burfict by the jersey in the last minute and said, look; Vontez, nothing stupid here, OK? We have the game won.
GOLDMAN: The same question about managing an out-of-control player arose when New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and Carolina Panthers defensive back Josh Norman had a running fight during a recent game. But there was no control then, nor with Burfict, whose actions also didn't surprise O'Neill.
O'NEILL: Once the whistle blows and these missiles begin ricocheting around the football field, these things are going to happen, and it's completely naive of anyone to suggest that it could be legislated out of the game, the players could be fined enough to be deterred to take it out of the game. It's not going to happen (laughter).
GOLDMAN: But O'Neill actually has dedicated himself to making football less dangerous. His program, Practice Like Pros, tours the country on a mission to limit contact in high school football practices where, he says, the majority of major injuries happen. Game day is harder to control at all levels. Last weekend confirmed that once again. Vontez Burfict has left the stage until next season, but there are still three NFL weekends left - ample time to debate and whince and watch. Tom Goldman, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.