When NFL Commish Roger Goodell handed down punishment against Houston Texans all-pro wide receiver Andre Johnson, Goodell considered a number of factors in deciding not to suspend Johnson for his Balrog-style haymaker combo on Tennessee Titans cornerback Cortland Finnegan. The incident, which took place in the fourth quarter of the Texans shutout victory over the Titans on Sunday, started when Finnegan, by many accounts, turned to the Texans' sideline and shouted "Watch this," before jamming Johnson's facemask with his hands. The ensuing fight, with three connecting punches thrown by Johnson, led to the ejection of both players and earned prominent placement in the 24 hour sports media cycle. On Monday, the league announced each player would be fined the minimum of $25,000.
Those who expressed surprise--and there were many-- at the commissioner's decision to only fine both players should ruminate on what might have given Goodell, a martinet by reputation, pause about not issuing a harsher punishment. When helmets come off and punches are thrown, it's natural to assume suspensions will follow. However, this was not a normal fight between two brawlers: it was a battle between good and evil.
Andre Johnson is one of the game's best players. His competitive focus is legendary, his selflessness is heralded, and his leadership as a team captain is widely admired. Although the ejection overshadowed it, on Sunday Johnson became the first player in league history to catch 60 passes in his first eight seasons. But beyond his stellar ethic work and myriad accolades, it is Johnson's off-field work with charities and community service efforts (the non-government mandated type) that earn him a sterling name in his adoptive city of Houston.
If anything, it is Johnson's reticence and humility that keep him from being more famous, more of a household name or a global brand, or some omnipresent peddler of sports drinks or footwear. With thoughtful contrition, Johnson stunted the post-game attempts of reporters to coax a braggart's sound bite about his TKO of Finnegan. Instead, Johnson apologized in each of his remarks, saying he was sorry to the fans, the Texans organization, the league, and the city. He admitted he was wrong, and even ashamed, and went on to air his fears that he may have hurt his team. In short, Johnson remained a class act.
Cortland Finnegan, on the other hand, is a punk. His season has been marred by fines and league warnings for his incitement and violent play. Last Sunday was no different. He baited Johnson with trash talk and when that failed Finnegan did something Johnson could not ignore. Even as Finnegan was being escorted to the locker room following his après-snuffing ejection, he taunted the Houston crowd all the way into the tunnel.
"Why is it I can close my eyes, and if there's a team involved in a fight, I know it's the Tennessee Titans?" said CBS football "analyst" Shannon Sharpe on Sunday. "And if I keep my eyes closed, I know another guy is going to be involved, and it's always Cortland Finnegan."
Pundits were quick to attribute Goodell's decision to money. The Texans play a prime-time game against the Philadelphia Eagles on Thursday night, a game to be shown on the league-owned NFL Network. While it's easy to be cynical about NFL disciplinary policies, in this case, fans of the game shouldn't be. With the measures of both men considered, Johnson may have done something many, perhaps even Roger Goodell, have wanted to do.
Johnson and Finnegan will square off again on December 19 in Tennessee.