Big hits not worthy of big punishments

The intense reaction of the National Football League office to “big hits” is an overreaction.

A recent increase in the number of head-to-head hits and other injury-causing tackles has led the NFL office to adjust the new standard for these hits: a personal foul penalty, game ejection, heavy fine and short suspension.

I often support what the NFL office does. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell usually has the players’ and league’s best interest in mind, and I hope he continues to be an active in his position.

In this situation, however, Goodell has the office’s long-term finances in mind.

Big hits are what make the NFL more entertaining than the National Basketball Association, in which people of similar size and stature get foul calls for practically breathing on an opponent.

I agree with two-time Pro Bowl offensive guard and current ESPN analyst Mark Schlereth’s opinion that the NFL office is increasing punishments for brutal hits because any long-term injuries that come of them are eventually the financial responsibility of the NFL, not the individual.

On an Oct. 20 airing of ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” Schlereth said it was “hypocritical of the NFL both to condemn players for what the league says are flagrant and egregious hits that endanger players and at the same time to profit from images of those hits.”

Schlereth was referring to the DVD “Moment of Impact” that the NFL was selling on its Web site, but has since removed.

Schlereth went on to say that if the National Hockey League hadn’t already taken the acronym NHL, the NFL could become the “National Hypocrite League.”

Schlereth’s words are passionate, and I believe they are well-earned. He played 12 seasons and won one Super Bowl with the Washington Redskins and two Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos. He knows the league well from a player’s perspective.

But since Schlereth’s retirement in 2000, the game has gotten faster, as noted by Baltimore Ravens middle linebacker and likely future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis.

“The game will get diluted very quickly,” Lewis said. “This is way more personal than you think.

“The game is way too fast, and you never know what’s going to happen in a play.”

Other defensive players have chimed in on the issue, confirming just how personal it is to the players.

“If I get a chance to knock somebody out, I’m going to knock them out and take what they give me,” Miami Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder said. “They give me a helmet, and I’m going to use it.

“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 been playing since high school.”

Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher added to the discussion and said that the league should instead add flags to the uniforms and become the National Flag Football League.

Despite having many new rules that protect them, the league’s offensive players seem to understand the danger associated with the game and accept the risks involved with it.

“It’s a dangerous game, it really is,” New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. “I think we all signed up to this game knowing that it is.

“Nobody wants to see anybody get hurt, but we also know that the physical nature of this sport is that people do get hurt.

“We all have gotten hurt, everybody in this locker room. I’ve had four, five surgeries. It’s just part of what you’re signing up for.”

All of these comments are by-products of the NFL office’s mixed messages.

The office says it wants to protect players, but realistically, their future financial responsibilities are a part of the equation.

With the restructuring of the collective bargaining agreement looming, Goodell and his office are simultaneously denying workers’ compensation claims from the NFL Players Association and threatening to hold out from negotiations of the agreement, which, if not reworked, could mean a players’ strike before the 2011 season.

Forty-six NFL players were reported to have head or neck injuries during the first six weeks of the current season.

This number is staggering, and I believe it has forced the hand of the NFL office. There are good medical reasons to limit certain types of so-called “big hits,” such as head-to-head contact.

However, the NFL has been fining defensive players for hits other than those involving head-to-head contact and using the timing of things to propel their interests.

James Harrison is the most prevalent of those fined for aggressive, but technically legal, hits.

The NFL docked the 2009 Defensive Player of the Year $75,000 Oct. 19 for his hit on Cleveland Browns wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi.

The issue frustrated Harrison so much that it caused him to contemplate retirement, although he decided against it and played in the Steelers’ win against the Dolphins Oct. 24.

Other games on Sunday saw some defenders not going full speed into offensive players, or not trying to tackle them at all, if a teammate was in the process of hitting them too.

I hope that this slight yet foreboding trend does not continue. Physical contact is in the nature of the game, and it is in the league’s best interest for players not to be thinking about being fined or suspended for hits they should be allowed to make.

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