Bengals vs Steelers is a nasty rivalry. Again. And by the grace/wrath of the Football Gods—thy will be done—the pair of contentious, regular season games (which the two teams split) and all the chatter surrounding them have inevitably led to a rubber match, Part III, The Trilla on the Riva, “The Hate-Filled Playoff Game We’ve Waited For.”
By now, you know the story: Vontaze Burfict tackles and injures Le’Veon Bell back in November, followed by an exchanging of words, re-invigorating the rivalry and reviving the Bengals-Steelers: Greatest Hits album. TJ Houshmandzadeh wiping his cleats with a Terrible Towel. The Carson Palmer knee injury. The Joey Porter-Levi Jones fight in Vegas. The Keith Rivers hit heard round the world (does anyone still actually care about this one?). The Kevin Huber hit heard round the world. The oft-forgotten AJ Green and Le’Veon Bell injuries in Week 17 of last season. And we haven’t even gotten to the egregious, vicious monster that is Stephon Tuitt’s left leg.
But for a moment, let’s set aside the angry mob of Pittsburgh internet commenters, the unendingly fatalistic Cincinnati fans, or the fact that the Steelers have owned the Bengals in this matchup since Kimo von Oelhoffen himself was in stripes—and examine why and how this matchup has actually become a “rivalry” yet again. Which is mainly Twitter.
Steelers Nation was none too happy when Bengals stud linebacker and distinguished maniac Burfict tackled Bell and appeared a bit too amped about it, but the real catalyst to the subsequent squabbling seems to be the post-game tweet (since deleted) by Vince Williams (a Steelers linebacker no one has heard of) in which he threatened to go all Jack Dawson in Titanic on Burfict.
The Bengals then stoked the fire prior to the December 13 rematch in Cincinnati, including an expletive-riddled Instagram video (since deleted) by cornerback Adam Jones (which, ok, isn’t technically Twitter, but whatever) and a ridiculously tone-deaf tweet (since deleted) by Marquis Flowers (a Bengals linebacker no one has heard of) in which he excitedly prepared fans to “witness a Mass Murder.” Naturally, the contest started with a pre-game ruckus—ignited by Burfict predictably going after Williams—and ended in a bonanza of slap fights and cheap shots on both sides, resulting in a Steelers victory and nearly $150k in fines. (For reasons still unexplained, Tuitt’s left leg was neither fined, suspended, nor retributively amputated for breaking Andy Dalton’s thumb. WHERE ARE YOU NOW, GOODELL?)
After that? More tweets! Jones stood by his (since deleted) Instagram video with a (remarkably, not deleted) tweet that offered a misspelled yet chuckle-worthy derogatory nickname for Pittsburgh. This provoked a string of tweeted replies (since deleted) by Steelers offensive lineman Marcus Gilbert, culminating in a Christmas wish to meet the Bengals again “in the playoffs where they choke,” an allegation that is a) undeniably true, and b) ignores the fact that Gilbert himself is 0-2 in playoff appearances.
Andrew Whitworth, the de facto Bengals spokesmen/voice of reason, even took to Twitter to argue that the NFL should have intervened after Williams’ (since deleted) tweeted threat, suggesting that if the league had addressed the issue, the 2015 Unsportsmanlike Conduct Penalty Jamboree never would have occurred…which, admittedly, seems like a stretch. But it also gets at the root of this renewed, social-media-sparked rivalry: Twitter is merely the new frontier of trash talk. Twitter itself is not new, obviously, but that’s also why the younger generations of professional athletes (and humans) are increasingly comfortable spouting anything and everything via their tweets, from the banal and inconsequential to the outrageous and offensive. Vince Williams is 26. Marquis Flowers is 23. The better part of their young-adult lives has been self-documented on social media, unfiltered. (Imagine if we could see their snapchats!) To them—and to most of us—the things we tweet are viewed no different than the things we speak. Does anyone think the content of their tweets is any less loaded than the trash talking that takes place on the field? (Williams and Flowers essentially confirmed as much when they offered pseudo-apologies, not for what was tweeted, but for the fact that it was stated via Twitter.)
This in no way absolves anyone involved for the stupidity of his comments, tweeted or otherwise. You should never threaten to “paint” someone or encourage a “Mass Murder,” whether online or on the field. This is a society. Don’t be an ass. But all of this also exposes the murky waters the NFL is wading in when it comes to policing its players on social media. It would often seem ridiculous if the league tried to penalize a player for what they might have allegedly said to another player on the field in the heat of the moment—it’s a tricky line to walk. (Remember the whole “penalizing the use of the n-word” plan that fell through?) But the public, published nature of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram separates those platforms from in-game trash talk privately shared between two people—even if the increasingly tech-comfortable generations of athletes (and humans) don’t always see it that way.
It’s an issue that will no doubt continue to evolve and require attention, and one that goes well beyond professional sports. For now, if we’ve learned anything—and to be honest, it might be the only thing—from this renewed Bengals-Steelers rivalry, it’s that players won’t hesitate to make their reckless, unedited, and often times idiotic trash talk public via their personal social media presence. And then promptly delete it.
Justin Williams is an associate editor at Cincinnati Magazine. He, too, tweets stupid things at @Williams_Justin.