Fight Club

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Shawne Merriman, Senior Correspondent - The Players' Tribune

It’s those damn YouTubers, I’m telling you.

A fight breaks out at an NFL training camp, and the race is on. The camera phones come out and everyone’s trying to get the best clip captured and uploaded to YouTube, Snapchat, Twitter, Vine, Facebook — whatever their social media app of choice is. There are so many, and everyone — the media and the fans — are fighting to be “first.”

It’s 2015. That’s just the world we live in.

But back when I played — which wasn’t that long ago, it just goes to show you how fast social media is changing — social media wasn’t that big yet. Everybody didn’t have a camera on their phone with the apps available to capture a moment and send it out to the world with a couple of taps of the thumb. So when I got into a fight during training camp back in San Diego, nobody really heard about it.

Everyone’s been buzzing about the fights in training camp this year, mostly because big names like Dez Bryant, Cam Newton and Geno Smith have been involved. I’ll admit, Geno’s situation is a little unique, and I’ll get to that, but as far as fighting in training camp goes, it’s really nothing new. It’s been happening forever. It’s just that today, you have more media, more fans and more outlets to make things go viral, and fight videos are about as instantly viral as anything on the Internet.

Philadelphia Eagles' DeMeco Ryans makes a selfie with a fan after practice at NFL football training camp, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2015, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

In every training camp, you’re going to get more than a few fights. It’s just a fact of life. And honestly, there’s really no way to stop it.

Imagine you’re one of 75 or so guys competing for 53 roster spots. It’s August. It’s hot. You’re tired. You’re sore. You’re under a lot of pressure to perform. Somebody hits you the wrong way, goes too hard after the whistle or starts jawing when you’re having a rough day. It doesn’t take much to set a guy off, especially when every play and every drill is a competition. It’s a hard switch to turn off.

On top of that, you’re seeing the same guy every day. Football is a team game, but when you break it down, it’s really a series of one-on-one matchups. If you’re a wide receiver, you’re going up against the same cornerback every day in camp. It gets physical at the line of scrimmage and you’re getting jammed up every play. Remember, you’re hot, you’re tired and you’re already on the edge. Now, this guy keeps jamming the hell out of you and you’re having a rough time.

And the better you are, the harder that guy across from you is going to try and jam you. He’s probably fighting for a job or a roster spot, even if you aren’t. And if it’s the other way around — the veteran is jamming the rookie — the vet is going to try and let the rookie know who’s boss.

It doesn’t take much for that to escalate into a scuffle.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) warms up before an NFL preseason football game against the Buffalo Bills on Friday, Aug. 14, 2015, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Heather Ainsworth)

Or maybe you burn the cornerback on a deep ball. You’re running downfield and the cornerback comes from behind to punch the ball out. Maybe he misses the ball and catches your abdomen, or he lunges for the ball and ends up tackling you. It wasn’t on purpose — he was just going hard. Either way, you’re jumping up and going back at that guy. It’s a natural reaction, even though he was just doing his job.

And it’s not just at practice where you see that guy every day. He’s there in the locker room, in the cafeteria and in meeting rooms, and it basically lasts all year long.

You don’t have to have a sibling to know that siblings fight. It doesn’t mean you don’t love each other or you’re not on the same team. Someone gets irritated, you go at it a little, and after the fight, you go back to the huddle and move on to the next play. You go back to being family again. (Unless you’re IK Enemkpali. In that case, you get cut and picked up by a new family. But again, I’ll get to that …)

You don’t have to have a sibling to know that siblings fight. It doesn’t mean you don’t love each other or you’re not on the same team.

That’s kind of what my fight was like back in San Diego. I won’t say who I got into it with or why, but it was another defensive player — one of my closest teammates on the field and closest friends off it. He’s like a brother to me, but one day, we got into it a little bit on the field, and it carried over into the locker room after practice. There was some wrestling and a couple of punches thrown, and some of the other players came over and broke it up.

I’m not proud of it. I look back on it — like the guys who’ve been in fights this season probably do — and realize how dumb it was. We were both starters on defense, and we’re lucky neither of us got hurt, because if one of us went down the wrong way while we were wrestling and tweaked a shoulder, a wrist or a knee, that could have hurt one of our careers, or worse, cost the team. I wish the fight didn’t happen at all, but like I said, when you have intense, athletic, competitive guys going at it on the field play after play — and I’ll admit, there are always egos involved — it’s just something you can’t completely prevent. That’s just the way it is. Training camp fights are a byproduct of the way we’re trained: to go hard, all the time, every down. Sometimes it spills over after the whistle.

It’s just not very often that it impacts the team.

Members of the St. Louis Rams practice as the silhouettes of fans are seen on the turf as they watch during training camp at the NFL football team's practice facility Sunday, Aug. 2, 2015, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

My little fight did end up affecting the team because there were some practices in the following days where the guy I was fighting and I weren’t communicating as well as we should have. And in football — especially on defense — communication is everything. It took a few practices for us to patch it up and get back to business and back to being a family again, and the rest of the defense suffered a little bit for those few days until we got things right. That’s what I regret most about that incident.

Which brings me to Geno Smith and IK Enemkpali. This was a unique situation for a few reasons.

First, Geno’s jaw got broken. I’m sure that wasn’t Enemkpali’s intention — I don’t think anybody gets into a fight with a teammate with the intention of injuring them — but it happened. His temper got the best of him and he made a mistake, and it cost him, because when he punched Geno, he also punched his ticket out of Jets camp. They released him basically on the spot. So both players suffer, and the Jets suffer, too. They lose Enemkpali and they lose their starting quarterback for 6-to-8 weeks.

Which is the second reason this is such a unique situation: He punched the quarterback. That’s something that should never happen.

Quarterback is the most important position on the team. They wear the red jerseys for a reason. They’re a protected breed in practice, in games, in the cafeteria — everywhere. If you’re fighting with your own quarterback — no matter whose fault it is — you’re putting the entire team in jeopardy, and that’s inexcusable.

So at the end of the day, Geno Smith vs. IK Enemkpali is an anomaly. It’s one of those things you never really see happen, but unfortunately for the Jets and for those guys, it did.

El linebacker Ikemefuna Enemkpali, de los Bills de Buffalo, habla con los medios en las instalaciones del campamento de entrenamiento del equipo en Pittsford, Nueva York, el jueves 13 de agosto de 2015, un día después de haber sido adquirido por los Bills proveniente de los Jets de Nueva York. Los Jets lo colocaron al linebacker como transferible el martes 11 de agosto por haber fracturado la mandíbula del quarterback Geno Smith de un golpe durante un altercado en el vestuario del equipo. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

But Dez Bryant getting into it with a defensive back after a hard jam at the line, Cam Newton in a scuffle with a cornerback after he gets picked off or a couple of linemen wrestling or shoving after a long day of going one-on-one isn’t anything new. It happened when I played and it happened to the guys before me and the guys before them — probably been happening since the beginning of time (or football, at least).

The only difference is, there are more eyes and more cameras on NFL training camps than ever before, and you have an app on your phone to alert you when a fight breaks out. Somebody’s always watching, racing to be the first one to get it on YouTube, or wherever. But that 15-second clip rarely tells the whole story.

merriman

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