Hard-hitting NFL players just don't get it

BILL LANKHOF, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:02 PM ET

TORONTO - There are two ways to assure yourself of being labelled a lilly livered softy.

One is to suggest that hockey would be better without fighting. The second is to suggest taking the headhunting out of football.

The NFL announced this week it would be cracking down on dangerous hits, particularly helmet-to-helmet type collisions that send players to their neurologists every weekend. Considering recent warnings of head injuries and evidence that football can cause long-term brain damage, it might seem reasonable to assume that players would welcome the league looking after their welfare.

But, no. From much of the reaction you’d think the NFL had attacked motherhood, America and apple pie. Football insiders, former players, coaches and TV analysts argue the league is ruining the game. Chicago linebacker Brian Urlacher calls the threat of fines and suspensions a “bunch of bull.”

In Pittsburgh, linebacker James Harrison was so upset at a $75,000 US fine for the head-bashing he laid on two Cleveland Browns that he told coach Mike Tomlin he might have to retire because it’s evident to him he doesn’t know how to play this game anymore. It’s a peevish charade, of course, furthered when he failed to practise yesterday because he was too upset. Golly. Here’s a suggestion: Maybe he should get his butt out there and learn how to play the game according to the rules. The NFL isn’t changing them; it’s merely getting around to finally enforcing the ones it already has but always ignored. There has been a tacit acceptance, even encouragement, of the NFL’s spiralling violence.

Face it. It sells. Fans like the physicallity which is fine. To a point. These guys aren’t cartoon characters who collide like Wile E. Coyote with a speeding train only to reappear untouched at the end of a dark tunnel eager for the next boulder to land on their heads.

Defensive players used to emphasize tackling; now it’s all about the hit.

It’s not about stopping the play; it’s about hurting people as Harrison acknowledged Sunday, a day in which he gave Josh Cribbs a concussion, drove his head into Mohamed Massaquoi so hard he couldn’t see, hear or speak; a day when DeSean Jackson and Dunta Robinson could’ve broken their necks; a day Detroit’s Zack Follett was left lying motionless.

“I loved and was completely enthralled by every one of those violent encounters and I’m not afraid to admit it. That is the essence of this sport we all adore called football,” Ross Tucker, a seven-year veteran lineman, wrote for ESPN.com.

“For me, the physicality of football and what that represents have always been more interesting than a great catch by a receiver or a tremendous run by a back. Don’t get me wrong, I love big plays as much as the next fan. Just not as much as a huge hit.”

NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock scolded the league for fining Robinson. “It’s legal — that’s part of the game of football right there, and that shot should not be penalized, nor should it be fined.”

Do they have to pick someone’s brains off the turf before this kind of thinking ceases?

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin says he’s in favour of “player safety” yet claimed to see nothing wrong with Harrison’s actions, calling them “legal hits, not fineable hits.” Which is the problem with the NFL. Everyone from the players to the coaches to the league and its fans know that the helmet as a weapon hit is a penalty rarely enforced.

As for Harrison crying about not knowing if he can still play, maybe he needs to go back to peewee football. That is where players first learn to tackle Randy Cross, also a former NFL player, said on the FanHouse website yesterday.

“They tell you that from the time you start playing football. Keep your head up,” said Cross “... put your face on the guy you’re tackling, make a triangle, use your same foot/same shoulder to make a tackle, all the basics.”

The basics don’t get a guy on SportsCentre; the big pop does. But if Harrison and Urlacher aren’t concerned for the safety of the players they’re hitting, they should be concerned about themselves.

“The thing that’s getting lost in this whole thing is these players leading with the tops of their helmets,” Cross said. “When a guy turns his face toward the ground and launches himself toward another person, that’s the most dangerous thing that happens in our game. If you hit with the top of your helmet, you expose your neck to an injury that could kill you, at worst, or paralyze you at best.”

Meantime, Harrison’s agent, Bill Parise says he’s appealing the fine, calling it “staggering”. What he should be doing is thanking the NFL because if Harrison keeps using his head for things other than getting a clue, one day it will be Parise’s meal-ticket that is doing the staggering.

bill.lankhof@sunmedia.ca


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