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Why do we see the Myles Garrett incident as ‘criminal’?

This kind of language is a marker of racialization, says one linguist

None of us would want to be Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett this week after days of being called a criminal when a fight broke out with Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph on Nov. 14. In this fight, Garrett removed Rudolph’s helmet and hit him on the head with it, all while being pushed, punched, and kicked himself by other Steelers players. It is one of the more striking examples of unsanctioned violence in the NFL.

This event, however, presents another example in the responses to it: racialized language. In referring to this incident, Garrett’s actions have been called an “assault” and a “brutal attack” by Fox News. Rudolph called him a “bully.” Jim Reineking of USA Today described the incident as a “massive brawl.” Former players are looking at Garrett’s behavior and asking the NFL to “drop the hammer” and “throw the book at him.”

To help explain what is going on here, I’m going to do the unthinkable: argue semantics. The choices of phrasing here are no coincidence, and they stem from the ways our beliefs about people interact with how we use language. Stereotypes help pattern the types of words we use to describe people and their actions. It is no secret that a criminal stereotype follows black people like a specter, and one look at who gets called a thug is a good illustration of that. Linguists call this racialization: When we talk about people of color, we use some words and phrases more than others. This tendency is everywhere in sports journalism, so much so that an algorithm I built can predict the race of an athlete based on the words used in an article. Racialization goes deeper than words. Research shows that seeing a still picture of a black face is enough for people to classify a hammer as a weapon instead of a tool.

So, it’s no surprise that people are calling Garrett a criminal, asking us to picture the helmet as a deadly weapon, suggesting he receive jail time, as James Harrison did in a Tweet on Nov. 14. This kind of language usage is a marker of racialization called semantic intensity: It is when people choose a word that elevates the seriousness of the events they are describing. It is a cousin of hyperbole. We increase intensity all the time when we describe something because of how we feel about it, like when we say that singer Cher is ageless, or that pizza is sacred. But in this case people are increasing the intensity of these descriptions — in part — because of their implicit racial biases.

This altercation was violent, no question. But five players in one of the world’s most violent sports scrambling around each other in a fight that lasted around a minute is no “massive brawl” as Reineking labeled it. That phrasing is biased semantic intensity at work. Etymologically, a brawl necessitates multiple, noisy fights going on at once, for an extended period of time. That would be what we see going on in a basebrawl (or rhubarb) in baseball and hockey games, which is when the benches empty and everyone pummels each other. In basebrawls, nobody gets called a thug. For many fans, these actions are all part of the fun. In fact, skirmishes like what we saw on Nov. 14 are not even that uncommon in football. ESPN2 aired a superclip of similar instances throughout the years, among college and pro players.

So, why do we see incidents like this in the context of football, especially when black players are involved, as “criminal actions” instead of being part of a game? Why all of a sudden are people so interested in protecting players from “attacks” when players open themselves to much worse attacks during every game? (In this same game, a player left the field from a concussion with his ears bleeding.) What is it about this unsanctioned violence that has everyone riled up and calling for an “assault charge”? Well, something about how we’ve linked blackness and violence is activating semantic intensity — we are choosing harsher words to describe what we are seeing, and we may be interpreting the events as worse than they are. That kind of intensity cascades as the event is reported and reinterpreted, so that just two days later, Rudolph became the victim of a “brutal attack” that in other circumstances might be described as a blow to the head.

And so Garrett, who has now been suspended indefinitely, will remain forever classified as a “cowardly,” “bush league” “thug.” Garrett plans to appeal his suspension on Wednesday. While Rudolph was not suspended for his role in the fight, he is expected to be fined $35,096 for a first-time fighting offense. The event was irregular, it was violent, and fans have a right to be shocked and outraged by this behavior. In situations like this, before we turn to social media, we should pause. Remind ourselves that few fully understand the tension between stereotype and language use. Allow ourselves to walk through the most generous interpretation of an incident, a cognitive operation we do without question when watching hockey or baseball. A good place to start is with Garrett’s own words: He calls the fight a “terrible mistake,” which shows us that his intentions were not violent, but instead he was perhaps swept up in the violence around him. Garrett takes responsibility for his “selfish” and “unacceptable” actions, and states that he plans to “learn from his mistake.”

Anyone of us can imagine using similar words in his situation, and we should carry that empathy forward as we write about athletes like Garrett in the future.

Kelly E. Wright is an Experimental Sociolinguist pursuing a doctorate at the University of Michigan. Her work combines theory and methodology from Sociolinguistics, Neuroscience, Phonetics, Corpus Linguistics, and Machine Learning.