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NFL can't shake ugliness as Myles Garrett, Mason Rudolph brawl escalates with accusation of racism

Terez Paylor
Senior NFL writer

I have no idea if Mason Rudolph used a racial slur before last Thursday’s brawl, as Myles Garrett has reportedly alleged in a hearing to appeal his indefinite suspension from the NFL.

And if you’re being honest, you don’t either. 

This isn’t about picking sides or trying to figure out what actually happened. It’s important to recognize that unless you were on the field in Cleveland, we don’t know the full extent of what transpired, and it would be unfair to act like we do.

Here’s what we know: Thanks to Garrett’s allegation — which he reportedly used during his appeal of his suspension for his role in the brawl near the end of the Cleveland Browns-Pittsburgh Steelers game a week ago — this has transformed into the ugliest story of the 2019 season.

Last week I wrote that the brawl, that involved Garrett ripping off Rudolph’s helmet and striking him on the head with it, was a nine on the “well that escalated quickly” scale.

Yeah. It’s a 10 now. And damn, that sucks.

Browns star defensive end Myles Garrett, pictured in New York on Wednesday, was denied an appeal for a reduced NFL suspension. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Why? This is the NFL’s centennial season, and appropriately enough, it has been one of the most entertaining ones in years. The New England Patriots are at their Evil Empire best at 9-1, and with the emergence of Lamar Jackson as Football’s Next Great Superstar, we’ve got more great young quarterbacks in the league than we have at any point this millennium.

Instead of reveling in all that, we’re in the midst of a calendar year in which multiple teams have been forced to navigate chaos, and not of the schadenfreude variety like a season of “Real Housewives.” Between the ugly Antonio Brown situations, the ongoing Colin Kaepernick drama and the Tyreek Hill audio that dominated the offseason news cycle for four months, there has been no shortage of smoldering he-said, she-said controversies this year, ones capable of dividing us around racial lines.

And guess what? It’s possible the Garrett-Rudolph beef could be the worst of them all, with everyone involved set to come out a loser, no matter what.

Say Garrett is telling the truth about the slur. In that case, Rudolph will be a big-time loser (for obvious reasons), and we’ll also have some people rush to defend Garrett for swinging his helmet. If a racial slur served as provocation, Garrett’s decision to swing his helmet would make more sense, though it would remain a wrongful act that could have caused significant injury and been potentially life-altering for both parties. Regardless, Garrett’s reputation would still be sullied and Rudolph will never be able to command an NFL huddle again. Big-time L’s all-around.

If Garrett isn’t telling the truth about this — and people are already using the fact it took a full week for this to come out as proof of it being a concoction in an attempt to save face, not to mention games and money lost — whoo boy, that’s another ugly scenario, too. And a sad one, too.

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told reporters Thursday afternoon that the league found no evidence that a racial slur from Rudolph was usedVia Twitter, Garrett said, “I know what I heard. Whether my opponent’s comment was born out of frustration or ignorance, I cannot say.”

The truth is, even if Rudolph is vindicated, which the NFL all but did on Thursday in its announcement, his reputation will still take a hit, as folks are already using his social media history and conservative advocacy against him. Because of this, many are all too willing to believe he said it, and for that reason, he’ll always be known for whatever this ends up being.

This scenario — with the claim being false — would also be the worst outcome for Garrett, one of the league’s best young defensive players. His reputation has already taken a hit for the helmet swing, but creating a lie about a fellow player, one that could alter Rudolph’s career, would be vile. Players compete on the field, but the NFL is a brotherhood; for the most part, they understand they’re all in the same bunker against a league that wants to chew them up and spit them out and give them as little as possible for their trouble. Not only would opposing players look down on Garrett for lying, his teammates would, too.

Unless this all is some far-fetched cosmic misunderstanding — one that would have to be derived from the mind of Larry David to be true — it seems that we’re headed face-first into one of those two horrific scenarios. 

Listen to the quotes coming out of Cleveland on Thursday afternoon, where news of Garrett’s allegation seemed to catch teammates off-guard. Baker Mayfield and Sheldon Richardson, each said they hadn’t heard about the allegation when asked, and a few teammates who spoke to the media made it clear that they did not know what occurred, but put their faith in their teammate’s character.

Teammates have defended Mason Rudolph after it was reported that Myles Garrett says the Steelers QB used a racial slur before last week's brawl. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

“I just don’t see Myles as someone who would lie or do something like that,” receiver Odell Beckham Jr. said. 

“He’s a calm, even-keeled guy, so something happened,” Browns linebacker Joe Schobert said of Garrett. “But I can’t comment on it, because I didn’t hear it.”

Meanwhile in Pittsburgh, Rudolph did not talk Thursday. His teammates staunchly defended him, adding they believed he didn’t say anything racist to Garrett.

“Dealing with that, he’s going to labeled for it and it’s just not right — I don’t appreciate it,” said Cam Heyward, an African-American. “It’s very serious. We all have a brotherhood in this league … it should never get taken out of context. To use that as your appeal and think that’s OK, one action doesn’t deserve another. I know Mason didn’t say it. Mason came to me and told me that he did not say it.”

So here we are, with the Browns digging their heels around Garrett, and the Steelers digging theirs around Rudolph. The NFL ruled quickly on the appeal, upholding Garrett’s suspension on Thursday despite his claim, but that won’t be enough to shake the faith of those who believe him, while those who outwardly doubt him likely wouldn’t even be swayed from a public proclamation of Rudolph’s guilt from Garrett himself.

We’re used to being in this divided space, of course. We’ve seen it so much this year, most recently due to the Kaepernick saga, and it’s the ugliest part of NFL fandom now, where much like in the real world, whenever race gets introduced, people retreat to their respective corners and point fingers and lob insults at the other side, largely behind their computer screens and phones.

Expect the same to happen here, as there appears to be little that can be done on either side to either support the claim or debunk it for good. And no matter what the truth is — or whether we ever get to the bottom of it — everyone involved will lose.

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