Big Hits Must Stop

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NFL's plan to suspend guilty players is the right call.

NFL's plan to suspend guilty players is the right call.

By Ralph Vacchiano

The voice of reason came from the unlikeliest of places, from a man who once made his reputation and his living by pushing the outer limits of safety and legality in the NFL. But Rodney Harrison, once a known head-hunter, once considered the dirtiest player in football, had finally seen enough.
Never mind the damage he had inflicted his career. His reform movement was sparked by a weekend of carnage — last weekend, in fact — when a season-long parade of players to MRI machines and CT scans and concussion specialists all erupted in one perfectly hideous storm. For a while it seemed like every game featured a highlight of a player getting laid out in a vicious, violent, helmet-to-helmet hit.

Crowds cheered. Announcers yelled. Players celebrated.

Other players, meanwhile, laid crumpled in a heap on the ground being tended to by trainers. One man’s ticket to SportsCenter is always another man’s ticket for an ambulance ride.
It happened in Philadelphia, where Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson ran full speed at Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson and collided with him head to head, helmet to helmet, leaving both players sprawled on the ground. Jackson later had memory loss and what was described as a “severe” concussion, with no one having any idea when he’d be back.

It happened, too, in Pittsburgh where linebacker James Harrison was remorseless in leveling two Cleveland Browns — receivers Josh Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi — with helmet-to-helmet hits. The NFL has reportedly ruled the hit on Cribbs to be borderline legal, though the one on Massaquoi clearly was not.

And it happened in New England where Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather delivered a helmet-to-helmet hit on Ravens tight end Todd Heap so over the line that even New England coach Bill Belichick was furious.

Fines are coming. Probably hefty fines. But it took Harrison — who collected over $200,000 in fines in his 15-year career on the edge — to implore the NFL that fines just aren’t enough.

“You didn’t get my attention when you fined me five grand, 10 grand, 15 grand,” Harrison, now an NBC analyst, said on Sunday Night Football. “You got my attention when I got suspended and I had to get away from my teammates and I disappointed my teammates from not being there. But you have to suspend these guys. These guys are making millions of dollars.”

There should be a chorus of “Amen” from NFL players who by now must be furious about putting their safety at risk thanks to a growing handful of cheap-shot artists who mistake the act of launching themselves like a head-hunting missile for the lost art of making a solid tackle. Sometime, in the Age of SportsCenter, form was lost in favor of getting an opponent “jacked up” and getting on the highlight reel.

The NFL claims it takes blows to the head seriously, and for proof they levy fines — fines in four and five figures for players making seven and eight figures per year. That may be enough to get the attention of an undrafted rookie making the NFL minimum. But will even a $25,000 fine mean anything to a player like Harrison who is in the second year of a six-year, $51 million contract that pays him an average of more than $8 million per year?

Apparently not, and not just because he did it twice on Sunday, but because he was defiant about his actions and unconcerned about the bodies he left in his chaotic wake.

“I don’t want to injure anybody, but I’m not opposed to hurting anybody,” Harrison said. “There’s a big difference between being hurt and being injured. You get hurt, you shake it off and come back the next series or the next game.”

There’s also a difference between being dumb and dumber, and it’s about as slim as the difference between being injured and hurt. He smashed two players in the head with his own head and left both with concussions. And for one of the hits, despite the damage, he said it would be “a travesty” if he got fined.

No, the travesty would be if he wasn’t suspended. But that’s coming soon, too — and not just because Rodney Harrison said so. Ray Anderson, the NFL’s VP of operations was apparently so horrified by what he saw on Sunday, he spoke out against the disturbing trend and predicted that the discipline could end being as hard as the hits are — and soon.

“Going forward there are certain hits that occurred that will be more susceptible to suspension,” Anderson said. “There are some that could bring suspensions for what are flagrant and egregious situations.

Again, from the chorus, can I hear an “Amen”?

“(If) the money does not seem to be a deterrent, then it has to be more than that,” said Giants coach Tom Coughlin. “It is quite frustrating, to be honest with you, if a player is forced to leave a game because of an illegal hit and the other player continues. That doesn’t really seem right.”

No it doesn’t. Nor does it seem safe. What it is, is disturbing on all fronts. And everybody is guilty. Coughlin may not like head-hunting, but his team spent $37 million on safety Antrel Rolle, whom last season as a member of the Arizona Cardinals went head-hunting on unsuspecting Giants tight end Kevin Boss. The Giants were furious with Rolle then. Yet they’re paying him now.

Meanwhile, the Robinson-Jackson hit — which was all over the highlight shows later that night — was shown twice on the four huge scoreboards inside the new, $1.7 million stadium while the Giants were beating the Detroit Lions on Sunday. Each time the crowd offered a cheer.

It was a sobering reminder of how distasteful that was later in the day when Lions linebacker Zack Follet lay motionless on the Meadowlands field after colliding, helmet-to-helmet with Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. That hit didn’t make some of the highlight shows because it was an inadvertent collision while Pierre-Paul was blocking on a kickoff return. It was poor tackling form, but likely won’t be considered illegal.

Plus, Follet was hurt — so badly, in fact, that he never seemed to move while laying on the field. He had to be rolled onto a backboard, carried to a cart, and carefully transported to a local hospital.
The highlight shows don’t want to celebrate results like that. But the hits? They’ll show the hits.
“(Fans) definitely like the big hits,” Boss said. “And guys want to make those big hits so they can get on SportsCenter.”

A few small fines won’t change that mentality. Just ask Harrison. Or Meriweather, who said after leaving Heap in a heap, “Point blank, won’t change my game, period.”
It’s time then, that someone changes the game for players like that.
Before somebody really gets hurt.

 

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