Aaron Donald was scheduled for a media blitz to promote a product before he swung a helmet at opposing players during a joint practice last week.
The tour went on Wednesday, as planned. Donald wasn’t prepared for it.
Given an opportunity by The Associated Press to address the incident, which occurred during a practice between his Los Angeles Rams and the Cincinnati Bengals, Donald said: “It was just a practice. It was football. I don’t really wanna go back to nothing negative that happened and talk about something that happened in a practice. My main focus is Buffalo.”
Naturally, the seven-time All-Pro defensive tackle and three-time AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year received more criticism for his response.
The 31-year-old Donald is already one of the NFL’s all-time greatest players. He’ll be a first-ballot Hall of Famer when his career is over. One out-of-control moment during a wild brawl that involved several players isn’t going to tarnish Donald’s legacy.
But he should’ve handled the aftermath more professionally.
All Donald had to say to defuse critics was something like: “I regret what happened in the heat of the moment. I’m sorry.”
That’s all it takes. Everyone would’ve moved on.
Instead, he downplayed it, fueling the angry observers who want to see him suspended and fined heavily for a dangerous act. Hitting someone with a helmet could do serious damage, especially when the force is coming from a 6-foot-1, 284-pound man with the strength to dominate even bigger offensive linemen on his way to sack quarterbacks.
Donald isn’t subject to punishment from the NFL because the incident occurred during practice and teams are responsible for disciplining their players in those settings.
Cleveland’s Myles Garrett was suspended six games in 2019 for using his helmet to hit Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph over the head, but that occurred during a regular-season game on prime-time television.
Donald told the AP he talked to his teammates and coach Sean McVay about his role in the fight and everything is OK.
Surely, the defending Super Bowl champion Rams won’t suspend their best player for the NFL season opener against the Bills on Thursday night. But Donald’s lack of contrition won’t stop people from calling for punishment.
Donald doesn’t have a history of violent behavior. He’s likable, pleasant and approachable, which isn’t always the case with superstars. Reporters who cover the Rams closely say Donald is a down-to-earth athlete who is always friendly and polite. He’s a normal guy away from football and hasn’t allowed his accomplishments and remarkable success to change his personality.
Certainly, Donald has plenty of pride. Perhaps that explains his attempt to justify his helmet swing by dismissing it as just a practice.
Someone needed to tell him ahead of an hour’s worth of interviews that specific questions about the incident were coming — despite attempts by publicists to avoid the topic — and to be ready with some semblance of an apology.
Donald repeated a similar answer when asked about the brawl by CBS Sports Radio.
“It was just a practice,” he said. “Obviously, people got phones out and things like that. But I’m not gonna sit and talk about negative stuff that happened at a practice. My main focus is Buffalo.”
Saying people have phones suggests Donald is sorry the incident was caught on video.
That response, six days later, may be more inexcusable than the act itself.
AP Sports Writer Greg Beacham contributed.
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