Head-hit suspensions drive NFL toward slippery slope

by | The Sports Xchange/CBSSports.com
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As noble and well-intentioned as the NFL's expeditious reaction was to the incredible and cringe-inducing spate of head injuries inflicted by defenders last weekend, the response is going to take much more than just the remainder of this season to engender real, on-field effect.

All the legislation in the world, threatening to suspend players in addition to the fines that have accompanied such hits, isn't going to dramatically alter or influence significantly a culture that the league itself was partner in creating.

Tuesday's "fair warning" fines included some $75,000 for Steelers linebacker James Harrison, who sent two Browns players to the sideline after big hits, and $50,000 each for Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather and Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson.

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Two generations after the "Mel Blount Rule" or the "Isaac Curtis Rule," which precluded wide receivers from being mugged more than five yards into a pass route, there are still illegal contact infractions. Years after the NFL enacted rules which widely liberalized the ability of offensive linemen to extend their arms and "lock out" on a pass-rusher, there are still holding penalties. And years from now, even with Monday's explicit threat of suspension, there will still be players carted from the field because of helmet-to-helmet contact.

Executive vice president of football operations Ray Anderson is a terrific man, a longtime friend originally met when he was representing the interests of players from the agent's side of the table, and his Monday edict is an admirable thing. But even Anderson knows that the league can't simply flip a switch now and turn off all the helmet contact that has contributed not only to the game's violence, but also to its popularity and preeminence.

Readers expecting some kind of words of wisdom or some eloquently elaborate and original take on the problem might be disappointed that this message is hackneyed. Shoot the messenger or not, the problem is the same: There is no way, short of killing off the sport entirely, and forcing the nation to spend its Sunday afternoons reading or visiting a museum, to completely eliminate the problem.

The league is making an honest and socially/medically conscious effort to reduce the number of players who are rendered unconscious during games, and to address the insidious aftereffects that have become headlines in recent years, but it will require a major sea-change and years of tamer and less bloodthirsty play to make an effective difference. And in so doing, the NFL is making the slippery-slope leap from head-hunting to head-shrinking. It is venturing into the realm of intent -- of implying a player's response to the stimulus of an opponent running his way with the ball -- and that is indeed perilous territory.

I attended one of the games most cited in Monday's review of the unusually violent weekend, Cleveland at Pittsburgh, and my instant reaction to the two hits on which Harrison waylaid a couple Browns playmakers was this: On the first hit, Cleveland wide-receiver-turned-"Wildcat"-quarterback Josh Cribbs turned into the hit, inadvertently creating a helmet-on-helmet confrontation. The second hit, on Cleveland wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi, was more brutal but nonetheless still borderline.

The game officials didn't flag either incident. Two days later, having reviewed the pair of plays both mentally and on tape, I still don't know if Harrison's intent was to injure the Browns' players. For his part, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, however impartial, said he felt the hits were legal.

There are a lot of wise people in the NFL offices, folks with more trained knowledge and more precise eyesight than I possess, so perhaps they can more accurately parse and gauge intent.

But good luck in doing so. And the league might do well to open up its own appellate court, because if it starts suspending players for what it alleges is intent to injure, there are going to be a ton of grievances soon crossing commissioner Roger Goodell's desk.

That's not to say the league's response to the weekend of on-field train wrecks isn't warranted. Or to characterize Anderson's announcement as a knee-jerk reaction to the public response (even Brian Williams and the NBC national news on Monday night featured a segment on Sunday's biggest head-hits) that emanated from the weekend of atypically gruesome incidents. But in confronting the head injuries, the NFL faces a dicey situation and the league knows it.

In his postgame remarks, Tomlin purposely emphasized that both of Harrison's attempts were legal. Harrison's words about "injuring but not hurting" an opponent might have been ill-spoken or intemperate, but they were not meant to be as incendiary as some interpreted them, and the Steelers linebacker was merely articulating the manner in which he has been taught to play the game.

For years, the league has embraced the popularity of video games that seemed to celebrate the violent nature of the sport. C'mon league officials, fess up: You love the ESPN segment "Jacked Up!" that document's the week's most devastating contact. The man who spent a small fortune in league-imposed fines for allegedly late hits, and who some peers suggested raised the level of violence to thuggery, former San Diego and New England safety Rodney Harrison, was rewarded for his career of indiscretion by being elevated to a network TV pulpit.

There is righteous indignation -- and, more, well-placed concern -- following the events of the weekend.

But the league is out on a greased tight rope and, in attempting to apply another layer of safety, is ironically without much of a safety net.

Or much of a mirror, either.

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