PITTSBURGH, PA – The on-field fight between Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph and Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett has turned into a war of words off it, with Rudolph denying an anonymous report alleging he used a racial slur shortly before their now infamous confrontation last week.
ESPN, citing anonymous sources, reported Garrett told the NFL during the appeal of his indefinite suspension Rudolph used a racial slur just before a confrontation between the two players that included Garrett ripping off Rudolph’s helmet and then hitting the quarterback in the head with it.
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said the league investigated Garrett’s claim and “found no such evidence” of the slur. The NFL upheld Garrett’s indefinite suspension on Thursday, though the accusation added another complex layer to an already emotionally charged rivalry, with members of both clubs rising to the defense of their teammates.
“I was never sure what provoked Myles in the first place,” Browns guard Joel Bitonio said. “Obviously something was provoking him, if it was in the pile or not and I think it just shows that he was provoked and if it was a racial slur, if it was something else that was said, something was said to kind of make it, it always takes two to tango. Most times people don’t just freak out on that and we understand that, but we’ll see what happens from here.”
Cleveland coach Freddie Kitchens said he supports Garrett “in every way possible” but did not comment when asked if Garrett told Kitchens about the slur in the aftermath of the fight. Defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson said Garrett “wouldn’t lie on nothing like that” but later added “(Rudolph) could have called him anything. I don't know.”
Rudolph was scheduled to speak to reporters on Thursday but declined shortly after the ESPN report surfaced. Steelers spokesman Burt Lauten said Rudolph “vehemently denies” the allegation. Rudolph, who has not yet been disciplined for his role in the fight, spoke about the incident on Wednesday, saying there was “no acceptable excuse” for his behavior while adding he “definitely didn't say anything that escalated” the situation.
Garrett stood by his claims with a posting on his Twitter account.
“I was assured that the hearing was space that afforded the opportunity to speak openly and honestly about the incident that led to my suspension,” Garrett said Thursday night. “This was not meant for public dissemination, nor was it a convenient attempt to justify my actions or restore my image in the eyes of those I disappointed.
“I know what I heard. Whether my opponent’s comment was born out of frustration or ignorance, I cannot say. But his actions do not excuse my lack of restraint in the moment, and I truly regret the impact this has had on the league, the Browns and our devoted fans.”
Pittsburgh defensive lineman Cam Heyward said Rudolph approached him as practice ended on Thursday when both players saw the report on a television while walking past the team’s weight room. Heyward, a captain and nine-year veteran who is among the club’s longest-tenured players, said he believes Rudolph and questioned why Garrett would wait until the appeal to bring up potentially damaging information.
“I thought it would have been brought up right after (the game), there would have been multiple guys speaking up about it,” Heyward said. “You know, I don't condone racial slurs ever and Mason, dealing with that, he's going to be labeled for it. That's just not right. I don't appreciate that."
The trouble began in the final seconds of Cleveland’s 21-7 victory on Nov. 14 when Rudolph flipped a short pass to running back Jaylen Samuels. Garrett hit Rudolph immediately after Rudolph released the ball, twisting Rudolph to the ground as play continued downfield. Rudolph took exception to Garrett wrapping him up, calling it “late.” Rudolph said he was trying to get away from Garrett — who was not flagged on the play — when he briefly grabbed the back of the 6-foot-4, 272-pound Garrett’s helmet.
Garrett responded by tugging Rudolph’s helmet off and holding it high while Steelers guard David DeCastro attempted to separate them. Rudolph scrambled to his feet and gave chase. Garrett swung Rudolph’s helmet at the quarterback, striking him on the right side of the head. Pittsburgh center Maurkice Pouncey ran in and kicked and punched at Garrett. The NFL initially suspended Pouncey for three games before reducing it to two on appeal, meaning he will not play when the Steelers and Browns meet at Heinz Field on Dec. 1.
Heyward said there were “mistakes made by both people” but worries that Rudolph will be forever scarred by the allegation.
“I know he's not going to talk about it because he's being villainized by it but he said, 'I'm going to be labeled as (a racist),” Heyward said. “And I just don't think that's right. That's my teammate. I'm going to fight for him. Do what's best for him. But, that kid made a bad mistake but he never crossed the line talking about racial slurs."
Rudolph’s agent Tim Young called the allegation “a lie” and “an assault on Mason’s integrity.”
Bitonio allowed “you’re probably never going to find out the exact truth. It’s always somewhere in between usually.”
AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this report.