Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 3, 2011

Harrison Exposes NFL’s Hypocrisy

One always hopes that the high point of Super Bowl week will be the game itself; though over the years there have been some real clunkers in that regard. But the low point, or perhaps more accurately the point at which all the hype is at its most transparently absurd, is unquestionably media day. Tuesday of Super Bowl week the players and coaches of the AFC and NFC champions are compelled to present themselves at the host venue to be set upon by a throng of both legitimate and not-so-much sportswriters.

This year the Packers and Steelers went through the ritual at Cowboys Stadium in unexpectedly frigid Arlington, Texas. Nearly 6,000 press credentials were issued for the event. Green Bay took the field first, and the players were forced to endure mind-numbing inquiries about nicknames, hairstyles, and the weather. Quarterback Aaron Rogers was asked repeatedly about Brett Favre, even though it’s been three seasons since Favre last wore a green and gold jersey.

It got no better when it was time for the Pittsburgh players and coaches to take to the multiple podiums lined up around the field. The newly sunny Ben Roethlisberger, still working hard to rehabilitate his image after beginning the season suspended for violating the league’s personal conduct policy, gritted his teeth and went along as he was asked four different times for his opinion of the inane TV reality series Jersey Shore. About the only good news in all the nonsense was that at least this year there did not appear to be any pseudo-reporter dressed in a wedding gown.

In short, despite its name suggesting otherwise, media day is structured so as to virtually guarantee that no real news will be made. But thanks to one of the most outspoken players on either team, this Super Bowl’s media day managed to generate some genuine headlines.

The Steelers All-Pro linebacker James Harrison used his media day appearance to launch into a sarcastic tirade against NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the league’s efforts to crack down on particularly brutal hits. Harrison, fined four separate times this season for a total of $100,000 in the wake of hits judged to be excessive, said “I don’t want to hurt nobody. I don’t want to step on nobody’s foot or hurt their toe. I don’t want to have no dirt or none of this rubber on this field fly into their eye and make their eye hurt. I just want to tackle them softly on the ground and if you all can, we’ll lay a pillow down where I’m going to tackle them, so they don’t hit the ground too hard, Mr. Goodell.”

But after seemingly making light of the NFL’s belated realization that the more vicious aspects of the game can do lasting damage to players, Harrison went on to call the commissioner out on his desire to expand the regular season to 18 games. ““It would be absolutely ludicrous to go to an 18-game schedule; especially with the way my body’s feeling now. You’re talking about 18 games and possibly another three or four games depending on what position you are in the playoffs, so you’re looking at 22 games before it’s all said and done,” Harrison said. “That takes a terrible toll on your body. I don’t feel like it’s a good idea. I don’t feel like it’s the thing to do. They’re so worried about player safety, yet they want to add two more games to give you another 150, 175 plays to possibly get hurt or injured. Just making it through a whole season without sustaining any injuries is hard enough when it’s only 16 games and they want to add two more. It’s not really player safety that they’re worried about. They want to do whatever makes them more money, and adding two more games makes them more money.”

To the extent that Harrison refuses to acknowledge the clear link between repeated head trauma and serious long-term physical issues, he comes across as a player who has already taken one too many hits to the head. But in pointing out the hypocrisy of league management in mouthing concern for player safety while advocating for more games that count, he does fans a service.

The NFL is the most popular spectator sport in the country by far. While sports such as NASCAR have seen attendance and television ratings decline, football is coming to the end of a banner season. More than 90% of games were sellouts. Regular season TV ratings were 14% higher than last year. The playoffs have set ratings records, with both the AFC and NFC championship games attracting their largest audiences in nearly a decade and a half. Last spring’s NFL draft had higher ratings than NBA playoff games on at the same time. With two classic franchises pitted against each other this Sunday, Super Bowl XLV is virtually guaranteed to be the most watched TV broadcast of all time.

But rather than adhere to the philosophy of not messing with a good thing, Goodell and most owners seem intent on converting two meaningless pre-season games into contests that matter. The increased risks to players of an extended season are obvious, as Harrison pointed out. As important as that is, it’s not the only negative impact of going to 18 games. The resulting reduction in pre-season play will greatly decrease opportunities for undrafted free agents or players taken in the draft’s later rounds to get playing time and make an impression on coaching staffs.

Still, expanding the season is a cornerstone of the league’s demands in the current contract discussions with the players’ union. The two sides are far, far apart on this issue and many others, and a lockout of players when the current contract expires early next month is a very real possibility. Whatever the game, few things sour fans on a professional sport more quickly than a labor dispute. More often than not, millionaire players bear the brunt of fans’ anger. But this time around it’s the billionaire owners who seem intent on putting greed ahead of the good of the game. The Steelers’ Art Rooney II, who has said that he doesn’t need the money two extra games would produce, is a notable exception. One can still hope that if owner Rooney and player Harrison can agree on this issue, Roger Goodell and Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith can find a way to do so as well. But time is rapidly running out.

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