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The Steelers ABCs: When karma rears its ugly head

This week, I want your help in determining how to feel about the infamous Vontaze Burfict hit.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports


On the corner of 18th Street and Penn Avenue in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, there is makeshift t-shirt vendor who sells the kinds of apparel you might expect to find at a flea market or county fair: shirts festooned with Pittsburghese (yinz, jagoff, n’at—things that almost nobody here actually says anymore), Stairway to Seven shirts, shirts containing overused, half-baked (lol Cheatriots, so clever), and outright derogatory puns, unlicensed Pirates, Steelers, and Penguins shirseys, etc. I saw a shirt several months ago that depicted a cartoon man in a Steelers jersey taking a dump in a Ravens helmet. A roll of frightened Bengals toilet paper loomed in the background. The man, cognizant of the potential medical complications caused by a strained colon, used a Browns helmet as a Squatty Potty. All you need to operate a successful business in the Strip District is a functional screen press and a big imagination.

Every morning, I pass this vendor on my way to work—and every morning, I see this shirt:

For the three of you who stumbled upon this article and aren’t intimately familiar with what’s being depicted, this shirt shows Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster—our city’s brightest, most amiable inhabitant—standing over the corpse of Vontaze Burfict after delivering some frontier justice in the form of a blind-side block. The play in question—which occurred during a nationally-televised Week 13 bloodbath in Cincinnati—was a microcosm of the wanton brutality that’s characterized the Steelers-Bengals “rivalry” (pretty one-sided, but alas) over the past five or six years: a Steelers/Bengals player does something bad, which causes the opposing Steelers/Bengals players to speak about the bad thing and whatever unseen atrocities that managed to escape the omnipresent television cameras, which causes the opposing fanbase to accuse the Steelers/Bengals of being a bunch of lowlifes. Many fans, in fact, will take this discourse a step further and suggest that every inhabitant of the belligerent city is a lowlife, and some will even go as far as disparaging the very infrastructure of the opposing city! Pittsburgh is a disgusting s***hole—they oughta call it S***sburgh (parts of Pittsburgh do smell a lot like pee, but I think every city is like that). Well, Cincinnati is a dirty, disgusting place full of terrible people (in my experience, this is not accurate, as Cincinnati is actually a very nice, navigable city and everyone there is pleasantly Midwestern). What I’m saying is that your football allegiances shouldn’t necessarily dictate your regional identity, but that’s neither here nor there.

Anyway, forgive the tangential thoughts—back to the shirt. Shortly after Chris Boswell booted a walk-off field goal to beat the Bengals, JuJu was asked about the hit, which rendered Burfict temporarily motionless and caused him to leave the field on a cart. JuJu’s response was wholly insignificant because (a) he was absolutely gonna be fined or suspended, anyway, so an apology would’ve done nothing, (b) anyone who’d seen the hit had already formed an opinion regarding its legality, and (c), Antonio Brown is heard screaming the word “karma” in the background, which was, in my opinion, more newsworthy than whatever Smith-Schuster may or may not have said.

Of course, what Brown meant to convey is that Burfict, maybe objectively the “dirtiest” player in the NFL, had it coming. And, you know, if you’re a believer in fate or actions have consequences or do unto thine neighbor or whatever else, you may agree with Brown. Burfict boasts a voluminous portfolio of sketchy, illegal plays, and he’s recognized throughout the league as being a particularly surly character, so I suppose if you apply karma to his situation maybe it was only a matter of time before someone tried to take his head off.

If you’re a football purist, you probably don’t take particular exception to the hit itself, but rather the fact that it was penalized. Maybe you’re fine with the hit but aghast at JuJu’s decision to stand, menacingly, over a probably-concussed Burfict. Maybe you’re like me and how you felt about the hit initially runs counter to how you feel about it today. When the hit first occurred, I was horrified because two hours earlier I’d watched my second-favorite player lose feeling in his legs, so the thought of another player getting severely injured was an upsetting prospect. In the weeks that followed, the sense of horror faded, and today I’ll actually watch replays of JuJu detonating an atomic bomb in Burfict’s face and wonder why everyone kicked up such a fuss in the first place. In fact, in an earlier iteration of this series, I wrote about the Burfict hit as being one of the “most exciting” moments from the 2017 season—almost as if it was some fond memory.

But these perfunctory justifications—Burfict had it coming; The hit woulda been legal 10 years ago; JuJu’s lack of post-play decorum accentuated the badness of the play; Burfict wasn’t severely injured, so maybe the hit wasn’t that bad in retrospect—kinda befog the fact that, hey, the hit was borderline illegal (and more probably outright illegal). Standing over Burfict certainly constituted taunting, which is definitely illegal. Twenty-five years from now, this play could very well remain the standout moment of Smith-Schuster’s career.

Hines Ward, for instance, is a two-time Super Bowl winner, a potential Hall of Famer, and one of only 14 players in NFL history with 1,000 or more receptions. Despite his accolades and “his Steelers” significantly enhancing my interest in professional football as a youngin’, if you asked me to pick a single memorable play from his career, I wouldn’t select some amazing catch or tricky gadget play, but the play in which he delivered a blind-side block to former Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers, shattering Rivers’s jaw in the process.

This is all a very loquacious way of asking: should we have immortalized the “Karma” hit like we’ve done? I’m seriously asking. On one hand, yeah, it’s football and sometimes getting blasted in the mouth is in the job description. But I’d simply ask that you put yourself in the shoes of a Bengals fan (or even a general Steelers-hater or neural Football Watcher) and re-examine how you feel about that particular hit. What if, instead of the Steelers beating the Bengals in the 2016 Wild Card game, the Bengals won that game. And what if, in celebration of winning their first playoff game since Abraham Lincoln was the president by BEATING THEIR MOST HATED COUNTERPART, folks in Cincinnati starting wearing shirts depicting Burfict delivering a cheap-shot against a defenseless Brown? Very curious to hear some thoughts on this.