Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 21, 2010

NFL Is Right To Stop The Head-Hunting

It’s been a strange week in the NFL. The league said it was going to do something; then didn’t.  Players went ballistic over news that existing rules were going to be enforced.  And at least one television analyst seemed to lose his mind.

Last weekend’s games featured three more instances of the increasingly frequent head-hunting hits that expose players to the risk of serious neurological damage. Before last season the rules were changed to provide that a hit on a receiver was illegal if “the initial force of the contact by the defender’s helmet, forearm or shoulder is to the head or neck area.” Prior to the start of this season the rule was expanded to protect all players, not just receivers. It was also toughened by prohibiting a defensive player from launching himself off the ground and using his helmet to strike an opponent in the head or neck.

These changes over the past two years were considered important enough that league officials visited all teams during this summer’s training camps to review and explain the league’s position. But those visits did nothing to prevent the Patriots’ Brandon Meriweather, the Steelers’ James Harrison or the Falcons’ Dunta Robinson from laying out opponents with vicious helmet-first hits.

So on Monday reports were out that the NFL was really going to crack down this time by suspending players for such dirty and dangerous play. Really. Except that on Tuesday the league did no such thing, deciding instead to fine Harrison $75,000 and Meriweather and Robinson $50,000 each. In issuing the fines the league told players and coaches that future penalties would be harsher. Really.

In response to the fines and the league’s announcement that it was going to enforce rules already on the books, a lot of players, with the apparent support of a good part of the NFL fan base, went apoplectic. “If they’re going to keep making us go more and more and more like a feminine sport, we’re going to wear pink every game, not just on the breast cancer months,” the Dolphins’ Channing Crowder told the Palm Beach Post. Fans posting on various blogs and comment boards wrote of the NFL becoming a flag football league. Harrison threatened to retire, though a day or two later he had thought better of that idea. Apparently his $51 million contract was enough incentive to persuade Harrison to play on in the girlie league that the NFL is about to become.

Football’s controlled violence is certainly part of what has contributed to the game’s enormous appeal. But to me the key word in that phrase is “controlled.” The game may well be the modern equivalent of gladiators battling in the coliseum, but that doesn’t mean it should be played by the rules (or lack thereof) of ancient Rome.

The knowledge of the lasting and potentially devastating effects of concussions has grown exponentially in recent years; to a level that the NFL simply could no longer ignore. But if the league is going to take seriously the aftermath of concussions, isn’t it logical that it take steps to prevent concussions? There will still be plenty of controlled violence next Sunday, and every weekend through the rest of this season and seasons yet to come. There will be devastating hits and players injured. Sometimes, hopefully rarely, those injuries will end careers. And there will be accidental blows to the head and there will be concussions. In a fast-moving sport that is unavoidable.

But the NFL is doing the right thing in saying it is going to crack down on head-hunting. Now it needs to actually do the right thing and crack down. Not just threaten to, or say it will next time. It would also help if the various broadcast and cable announcers and analysts thought twice before glorifying dirty play or dirty players. Last Monday night, the very day after Sunday’s multiple incidents; ESPN’s Jon Gruden breathlessly praised the playing style of Tennessee’s defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil. Cecil was a famously dirty player, whose photo once graced the cover of Sports Illustrated under the headline “Is Chuck Cecil too vicious for the NFL?” As for the players who are up in arms, they should try taking a few deep breaths. Or maybe they’ve all already been hit in the head one too many times.

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