How the NFL, for One Night, Sucked Less Than the NHL

Pittsburgh Steelers celebrate Wild Card win over Cincinnati Bengals

I want to love the Steelers as much as I used to just like I want to love the NFL as much as I used to. Sports have always been and always will be part of my livelihood. But first and foremost, I’m a hockey person. And hockey people, by nature, don’t like to lose. I don’t like that hockey fans, like football fans, have lost respect from a league that insists upon insulting their intelligence.

That’s not to say I don’t care about Saturday’s result. If anything, historically, I’ve made the common yinzer mistake of caring too much. Sure, I was happy the Steelers won, and I would’ve gone to bed that night kind of bummed if they hadn’t, because I’m a Pittsburgher by blood, and it’s in my blood to wish my town–and all its teams–prosperity. Where I come from, winning football, economically, has always been better for the greater good than the alternative. But between the oversaturation of pro football (I can count on one hand the number of Thursday night games that have actually been good) and its overly ostentatious players, the ethically questionable player signings amid hypocritical bleating about “The Steeler Way”™ and the things I now know about Roger Goodell, I just can’t be as emotionally invested as I once was. Having said that, maybe, just this once, I should stop shaking my fist, and instead, clap my hands.

Maybe I should give the NFL, the most corrupt outfit in North American sports besides the NCAA, its ironically due credit for doing something the NHL hasn’t had the spine to do.

I realize sports were never meant to be a morality play. But I have been told repeatedly that they are entertainment. I am not alone in saying that, as a fundamental principle of entertainment, I am entertained when the victim gets justice, and the villain gets what he has coming. Don’t expect that to happen in Gary Bettman’s NHL.

To be fair, until the very (merciful) end of a Wild Card game at Paul Brown Stadium that would make its namesake spin in his grave, I wasn’t expecting it to happen there, either.

Don’t get me wrong. Bettman and Goodell are two sides of the same wooden nickel. They’re tricky political tycoons and shameless corporate apologists who have only really worked to make their respective products better when they’ve absolutely had to. But there’s a reason why pro hockey, in most places beyond Pittsburgh, is treated as a second-class citizen, and why pro football, universally, is not.

Let’s briefly shift our attention to the other corner of Ohio, where Brandon Dubinsky has shown flashes of brilliance as an assistant captain of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Still, Brandon Dubinsky doesn’t draw ratings and put asses in the seats like Sidney Crosby does. For all his flashy moves, Dubinsky has an equally robust history of dick moves, especially against Crosby.

Go ahead, Columbus. Bang your narrative drums and troll Crosby all you want for so-called petulance; God knows Dubinsky’s delusional head coach did. What Dubinsky did here is unacceptable (also, water is wet, and your team, last I checked, is still in last place):

In any context, it was a cheap shot, and based on where on his body Crosby absorbed the blow, it could have aggravated the concussion problems he’s had. Dubinsky knew what he was doing. He should have known better.

In summary, a player with a dirty reputation who made a dirty play, and who should have gotten five minutes at best and an ejection at worst was allowed to stay in the game, which gave him the opportunity to do this:

No books thrown at the villain. No justice for the victim. Just follow-up discipline tantamount to a speeding ticket–a one-game suspension–after an elite player was unnecessarily targeted. Sadly, I’ve come to expect nothing less from the NHL; as a result, we, the fans, all become victims. This is where the NFL picked up the ball–or puck, as it were–than the NHL constantly drops, and ran with it to the bank.

I’m not going to anoint Ben Roethlisberger for sainthood, for widely-cited reasons, to say nothing of a number of his teammates. But let’s be honest: What grinds the gears of beer-tossing Bengals fans more than Milledgeville these days is Big Ben’s stardom. He’s one of the NFL’s modern greats, and on top of that, he’s a northeast Ohio native who, historically, has terrorized both of Ohio’s NFL teams. Antonio Brown, meanwhile, is a man-amongst-boys wide receiver who has been a subject of best-in-the-league-at-his-position debates all season long as Ben’s primary target.

Now, for a stark contrast, let’s look at the other side of the ball. One of the chief antagonists on this night were Pacman Jones, the gum-flapping cornerback who, among other things, has shot up a strip club before. His attitude has negated whatever talent he’s possessed since he played at West Virginia, and when the Cowboys had to put up with him, Jerry Jones tried to idiot-proof Pacman by hiring what he called “bodyguards,” but were really the grown-ass man equivalent of babysitters.

The other one was Vontaze Burfict, who, like Jones, has been a suspect player dating back to his college days. Today, Burfict enjoys(?) a reputation as one of the dirtiest linebackers in the game. Dennis Erickson, who was once head coach at Miami, benched him at Arizona State for taking too many personal fouls. That’s like getting kicked out of the KKK for being a bigot.

Again, I can’t exempt my team from criticism. Ryan Shazier should be ashamed of himself for celebrating Gio Bernard’s injury, as should Antwon Blake (keep your eye on the upper right-hand corner):

And I loathe to play the “he started it” card…but:

The loose cannon kept firing Saturday, right into Roethlisberger’s shoulder, then, inexplicably, with a shot straight to Brown’s head. That’s not even counting the aftermath, in which Steelers offensive linemen claim Burfict spit at them. In Brown’s case, a flag was thrown and the appropriate penalty assessed at a time when NHL referees would have kept their whistles in their pockets and let the inmates run the asylum–not that they already weren’t to some degree.

I call B.S. on anyone who says Joey Porter came out onto the field to “check on” Brown. Porter and Jones are of the same generation. They’ve played on the same fields. Porter, like Mr. Dubinsky, knew what he was doing and waited until just the right time to do it. He deserves every penny of his fine, and he should have been penalized at the time. Perhaps, while Peezy was being Peezy, he would have been eventually, if not for Pacman being Pacman.

Hey, Mister Instagram, you know how they say the delete key is your friend? Pro tip: the “ignore” button, when available, is also your friend.

Then again, it’s clear that the Steelers and UPMC have collaborated on a genetic mutation that turned Chris Boswell into Gary Anderson, so who’s to say a 47-yard Boswell kick would have had an outcome different from his textbook 32-yarder? And besides, glass houses and stones:

I don’t know who those officials were, though, regardless which dog you had in this fight (not an expression I’m comfortable using in a year that saw the Steelers voluntarily take on Mike Vick’s baggage), you’d think they were the same 90-year-old knuckleheads who mangled that Steelers-Colts game ten years ago. Nevertheless, the NFL, even if just accidentally, managed to send a clear message Saturday night.

The NFL will embrace its stars unconditionally. The NFL will enforce its rules in a manner that allows its most skilled players to show off those skills, and makes middling and/or openly insubordinate players pay a price–literally, in Burfict’s case, next season–for taking liberties with stars. The NHL is too busy playing antiquated politics and fondling itself to visions of Vegas (the Los Angeles of pro hockey’s parallel universe) to do either of those things. Guess which league, for all the negative attention it has deservedly drawn, has also, deservedly, drawn more of the positive kind?

Saturday’s wild Wild Card was one of two football games I saw over the weekend in which no team had any business winning. But even if they were merely the lesser of two evils, the Pittsburgh Steelers got justice for their stars, while the Cincinnati Bengals got their own football-equivalent Sid Bream moment shoved down their collective throat.

Now that’s entertainment.

Maybe the Steelers, who did not win without cost, will surprise us and gut out another one in Denver? Maybe the Steelers, who have extended their season in spite of themselves and their coaches, will see their good karma run out against the Broncos? Either way, we know both teams will get what they deserve this approaching Sunday. Hell, that might be enough to make me flip over from Pens-Canes at quarter to 5:00.

Wow, did I really just say that? Sorry, fellow hockey people. It’s wrong of me to give you the cold shoulder.

But hey, nobody’s Burfict.

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