The immediate reaction to Bears LB Danny Trevathan’s helmet-to-helmet hit on Packers WR Davante Adams on Thursday Night Football last week was swift and nearly unanimous. Fans and journalists alike called for a suspension, a hefty fine and, in some cases, an immediate ejection from the game. The NFL handed Trevathan—formerly of the Broncos, who signed a four-year, $24.5 million deal with Chicago in 2016—a two-game suspension, which was ultimately reduced to one game following an appeal heard by former Buccaneers linebacker and Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks on Tuesday.
But players on the Lions and Vikings, Trevathan’s division rivals, didn’t see it as clearly, the way that fans and members of the media did. Following Detroit’s 14–7 victory in Minneapolis on Sunday, I asked several offensive and defensive players to watch replays of the hit and give their diagnosis. Their answers highlighted the difference between how players view violent collisions and how the league views them as it tries to legislate certain plays out of the game.
Three days after the social media storm convicted Trevathan, and a day after the NFL sentenced him, players—for the most part—defended the hit, even those players at risk of being slammed by Trevathan in the same manner somewhere down the road. All agreed the replay didn’t show that Trevathan had obviously targeted Adams. When Trevathan launched, he appeared to be on course for collision with Adams’ collarbone, but Adams’s head lowered into the strike zone by the time Trevathan arrived.
In the replay, Adams spins off a tackler and into the arms of one of Trevathan’s teammates. While fighting for yards, Trevathan enters the frame with high velocity, striking Adams with the crown of his helmet while he appears to be falling to the ground.
Lions receiver Golden Tate, who hadn’t taken a close look at the play before Sunday, initially felt the aggression was unnecessary. Then he watched the replay.
“In slo-mo I think it looked a lot worse,” Tate said. “As an offensive player, I think it’s a close call. It almost depends on the crew that day.
“If you look at the mouthpiece flying, OK yeah, that looks bad. But it seems pretty legal because the dude just bounced off a would-be tackler, right? There’s a chance he could have broken that.”
Tate, who didn’t know much about Trevathan’s history, asked if he’d done anything like that before. Before I could answer, a teammate leaned over to say Trevathan hadn’t: “They say he’s not that kind of player.”
“Well if this is his first time doing it,” Tate said. “I think you’ve gotta have some grace, but if this is one of those dudes, then yeah. In real time it looks fine. He kind of led with his head, so that’s the part that’s bad.”
We’re a half-decade into the heightened conversation around brain injuries, and while the public—those who are vocal online, anyway—seems to have shifted to a prosecutorial viewpoint on big hitters and big hits, players haven’t shifted much. In the language of the league’s rulebook, the word "intent" is not mentioned as it pertains to hits to defenseless players, but it's the go-to evaluation when players talk about excessive violence on the field.
It’s this gap between the NFL’s definition of unnecessary violence and the players’ definition that needs to be reconciled.
Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon, who has never been diagnosed with a concussion in his pro career, wasn’t sure if the hit warranted a suspension. “I could go either way,” he said. “I don’t think he was necessarily trying to go in there with those intentions. Guys out there playing hard, things like that happen. I don’t think he was trying to send Davante Adams to the hospital."
Safety Andrew Sendejo, McKinnon’s teammate, was fined $24,309 for his end-zone hit to the back of Bucs tight end Cameron Brate’s head in their Week 4 matchup. Sendejo also said it wasn’t obvious the intent was there with Trevathan.
“I don’t really know what was going through his head,” Sendejo said. “I can tell you that as a defensive player you're taught to run to the ball. Go ’til the whistle blows or ’til the guy’s on the ground.
“If you can avoid hitting him in the head, you do. But at the same times guys are moving so fast, you’re aiming at something and then at the last second it may move. Hopefully Davante recovers well. It’s a violent game.
Sendejo’s take speaks to the argument Trevathan presented to Brooks, per a source familiar with Trevathan’s thinking. Adams had already broken a tackle, and could have spun off the second tackle.
Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter defended Trevathan and disagreed with the league’s action: “He’s just trying to help his teammate tackle a dude. I don’t think he’s trying to do that on purpose. You know fans, they’re gonna say whatever."
Did Player X mean to send Player Y to the hospital? This is the barometer in locker rooms, and most agree the Trevathan hit didn't look intentional. In Sendejo’s words, "sh** like that happens."
“I feel like that’s just an unfortunate situation,” said Lions safety Glover Quin. “I didn’t feel like Trevathan was trying to be dirty. I just feel like its unfortunate the way he caught him. That’s a risk we all take. I didn’t see anything malicious.”
Players have to come around to the notion that intent matters less when the conversation is about eliminating brain injuries, and the NFL has to realize they’re dealing with a system of morality unbothered by the whims of the viewing public. There’s middle ground here, and it’s vital to the future of the game.
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