The NFL has spoken. Actually, it’s spoken twice. On Tuesday, the league hit three players with wallet-deflating fines for nasty hits on defenseless players, and on Wednesday, commissioner Roger Goodell said he means business.
In a memo, which is accompanied by a video that each team must show to its coaches and players, Goodell said: "One of our most important priorities is protecting our players from needless injury. In recent years, we have emphasized minimizing contact to the head and neck, especially where a defenseless player is involved. It is clear to me that further action is required to emphasize the importance of teaching safe and controlled techniques, and of playing within the rules. It is incumbent on all of us to support the rules we have in place to protect players."
Translation: The next time someone levels an opposing player with a flagrant hit designed to injure (or at least has that appearance), they face a fine, a suspension and even ejection from the game. This includes first-time offenders.
There’s no room for negotiation. The league made that clear this week when it fined linebacker James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers, safety Brandon Meriweather of the New England Patriots and cornerback Dunta Robinson of the Atlanta Falcons a combined $175,000 for flagrant and dangerous hits. It emphasized its point with Goodell’s memo, but some players claim that such restrictions are more likely to ruin the game.
“What they're trying to say – ‘We're protecting the integrity’ -- no, you're not,” said Chicago Bears cornerback Charles Tillman. “It's ruining the integrity. It's not even football anymore. We should just go out there and play two-hand touch Sunday if we can't make contact.”
Said Miami Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder: “If I get a chance to knock somebody out, I'm going to knock them out and take what they give me. They give me a helmet, I'm going to use it.”
Harrison took the day off from practice, saying he was considering retirement as a result of the fine and an implied belief he can’t play football the way he was taught to play. Don’t believe it. Harrison is in the second year of six-year, $51.75-million contract, and if there’s one thing players like more than hitting each other, it’s their paychecks. He’ll be back, but his point will be made.
Players should remember, however, that the game isn’t just about hitting. It’s about Chris Johnson dodging tacklers on his way to an electrifying touchdown run. It’s about Peyton Manning throwing deep to Reggie Wayne. It’s about Troy Polamalu cutting in front of a wide receiver for an interception.
It’s also about clean, hard hits. Is it wrong to believe that players can deliver them without trying to give someone a concussion?