Friday, October 22, 2010

Where's your head at?

Pittsburgh's James Harrison is a one-man wrecking machine -- or at least he was until the NFL decided that they had to draw the line. Debate still lingers, but the NFL's stance is clear: NO HITS TO THE HEAD.

After being fined 75k for one of two vicious hits to the head last Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison has gone from one of the league's most heralded victimizers to its poster boy for how not to hit.

I don't blame Harrison for reacting the way he did, but truthfully, if there is a side to take in this argument, anybody with a shred of common sense and humanity would be wise to commend the NFL for taking action swiftly in order to stem the tide of catastrophic injuries that have become an ugly reminder of the viciousness of NFL football.

What's funny about this whole episode is that the players don't want the changes that the NFL is talking about. Josh Cribbs, who was absolutely tattooed by Harrison on Sunday, and is probably still a bit woozy today, had nothing but nice things to say about Harrison. "He plays to knock people out," says Cribbs. "That's what good linebackers do."

As is evidenced by Cribb's quotes, the NFL has a lot of work to do in sending a message to players that hits to the head are not what good linebackers do. In the NFL culture, where the inmates have been running the asylum since the leagues inception, save for the token slaps on the wrist that have became commonplace every time a player makes an attempt of dislodging his opponents head from his spine, most players and ex-players feel that competition on the gridiron should be no-holds-barred all-out warfare.

It's a gladiator sport, and the typical NFL employee (particularly the defensive players, who find themselves running full speed at players who are concentrating on a flying pigskin) want it to remain so.

"If he was on our team we'd be applauding his efforts," say Cribbs.

Not to Josh: How about applauding the league for trying to protect your defenseless freakin' head?

I'm not quite getting the disconnect here between the players, who often complain that they aren't fairly compensated for a game that is hazardous to their collective health and can leave them with maladies long after they've cashed their last paycheck, and NFL management.

"We glorify these hits," says NFL commentator Mark Schlereth, who boasts of 29 surgeries since his playing career began. "We make money on these hits. That's what we do, and the NFL profits on that."

"You take all that contact away and guess who you are? You're soccer," he said.

If at first it's not obvious why players are trying to avoid being cracked down on for "devastating" hits, it should be. NFL defenses benefit from the intimidation that comes from the kind of hits that James Harrison and Dunta Robinson and Brandon Merriweather put on players. If an offensive player has to live in fear of being separated from his brain every time he goes to catch a pass, then he's going to catch fewer passes.

Defenses rely on this intimidation, and players like Harrison, who was the NFL's defensive player of the year in 2008, are of immeasurable value to their teams well being because of that fact.

But in recent years -- and there is no denying this, the numbers are clear -- there has been a surge of blows to the head, and with advancements in equipment, fitness, strength, and speed, players are launching themselves at each other like never before. In the days before face masks, when players wore leather helmets, it wasn't a problem. Today, when players wear light, unencumbering armour, football is downright deadly.

Why not, in the name of the players, try to make it safer?

The NFL is at a serious crossroads. Defensive players are, in Cribb's words, "heat-seeking" missiles, and the game's physical toxicity is at an unprecedented level.

Is that entertaining? Sure, like watching a car crash. But is it necessary? The NFL doesn't think so. They aren't trying to emasculate defensive players, they are simply trying to protect players that they deem to be defenseless from deathly harm. We are talking about human life here. Concussions are as common as colds in NFL dressing rooms, and if you're against the game becoming just a little safer, than you might want to change the channel to alligator wrestling or MMA.

Violence, in the mind of the typical NFL player and fan, is great, and the toughness of NFL football is a big part of the allure that has made it our new national pastime. But let's be sensible about change. Cracking down on career and life threatening hits to the head will not change the nature of the sport. Football will always be football. And whether the NFL cracks down on headhunters or not, the red-blooded enthusiast will always have his safe haven on Sunday afternoon.

Still, resistance is strong -- even in the face of an NFL hierarchy that is resolutely stepping up to protect its players.

"If I get a chance to knock somebody out, I'm going to knock them out and take what they give me," says Channing Crowder, linebacker for the the Miami Dolphins. "They can complain, they can suspend, they can fine and they can do whatever they want, but you can't stop a man from playing football the way he's playing since high school."

No offense Channing, but I'm pretty sure Roger Goodell has other ideas about that.