Tuesday, October 19, 2010

There's no crying in football

Apparently the NFL is under the impression that Browns' wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi showed up on Sunday to do a ballet performance of Swan Lake, not to play football.

After a hard-hitting weekend of football which left players injured as the result of helmet-to-helmet hits, the NFL is reviewing its policy on flagrant hits. The NFL says it is considering harsher fines and even possible suspensions.

Oh, I'm sorry, I thought this was football. When I was a little kid, I knew one thing about football: it is a game where people throw a ball then slam into each other.
And I mean slam into each other as hard as possible. That is how you knock the ball loose to create fumbles. That is how you be sure you knock someone to the ground and not just a few steps out of their way so they are able to recover and continue running. That is why they recruit guys who are 6'6" who weigh over 300 lbs. Hard, rough, dirty, knock-you-to-the-ground, knock-the-wind-out-of-you hits.

But, this past weekend, in a freak accident, Rutgers defensive tackle, Eric LeGrand, became paralyzed from the neck down after making a tackle in a football game against Army. The moment was of course captured on video and is horrifying to watch. One cannot help but be touched and incredibly saddened by this tragedy. However, it is easy to get caught up in the emotions surrounding this situation and forget that this it is extremely rare and unlikely and, as I said earlier, a freak accident.

It was because of this incident that the NFL took the uber-sensitive approach to the hard helmet hits in this weekend's games.

The NFL has just announced that Steelers' linebacker, James Harrison was fined $75,000 for the concussion-causing hit on Cleveland Browns' wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi. The hit happened during the second quarter as Massaquoi reached down and bobbled a pass from quarterback, Colt McCoy. Harrison hit both Massaquoi and wide receiver Josh Cribbs in helmet-to-helmet tackles during Sunday's game, and, watching the game, you could clearly hear the cracks of the helmets hitting together, so even fans knew how hard the hits were. The NFL determined the hit on Cribbs to be legal, however, and, in fact, during the game, the Steelers' did not incur penalties for either hit, as officials determined both to be legal.

Atlanta Falcons' cornerback Dunta Robinson was fined $50,000 for hitting Eagles' defenseless wide receiver, DeSean Jackson. Both players received concussions.

Finally, Patriots' safety, Brandon Meriweather, was fined $50,000 for the hit on Baltimore Ravens' tight end, Todd Heap.

The NFL says Harrison's fine is larger because it considers him a repeat offender. Harrison didn't help his situation when he stated, after the Steelers' 28-10 victory, "I don't want to injure anybody," Harrison said. "There's a big difference between being hurt and being injured. You get hurt, you shake it off and come back the next series or the next game. I try to hurt people."

But, while it wasn't necessarily an intelligent or appeasing thing to say if you're trying to avoid the wrath of the NFL, Harrison makes a nuanced point.

There are positions in football whose express duty it is to hit and hit hard. Aside from the immediate bonuses of a solid tackle, hard hits also intimidate the opponent, and football is both a mental and physical game. You never want to seriously injure an opponent, but you do want to show them who is boss. The Pittsburgh Steelers consistently have one of the best defenses in the NFL, and, over the past few years, Harrison is a big reason why.

A host of penalties already exist to protect players, including penalties for late hits, facemask grabs, running into the kicker, roughing the kicker or passer, unnecessary roughness, striking an opponent with a fist, or kicking or kneeing an opponent. In fact, there are even 15-yard penalties for a tackler using his helmet to butt, spear, or ran an opponent, and for any player who uses the top of his helmet unnecessarily. It is in a team's best interest to reign in defensive hits as far as is reasonable so they are not penalized. Penalties can absolutely lose games, and teams, coaches, and players are aware of this.

The truth is, when a play in football is underway, and things are frantic, the players on defense can't always be acutely aware of exactly where they're going to strike another player. While Meriweather's hit on Heap was considered flagrant and egregious, these calls are often difficult to determine. For every intentional hit like Meriweather's, you have a hit like Harrison's on Cribbs, which was considered legal and safe, even though it resulted in Cribbs being sidelined.

While I can appreciate the obvious need to protect players from what could potentially be devastating hits, I feel the NFL has appropriate protections in place already, in the form of in-game penalties and smaller fines. The fact that it is issuing the absurdly expensive fines like those it just did earlier today, as well as considering suspensions, which I consider far beyond reasonable, is ridiculous and could detract greatly from the game.

What is further, the NFL is being rather hypocritical in what is asking of players. It profits greatly off the hard hits that consistently make the sports highlight reels. In fact, the NFL is currently considering lengthening the season, which would subject players to the physical strain of the games for an additional two weeks every year. As Steelers' linebacker, LaMarr Woodley points out on his twitter page, "If theyre so worried about players' safety then why are they trying to add 2 more games? #justsayin." ( http://twitter.com/#!/LaMarrWoodley/ )

Obviously, the NFL finds a huge difference in a split second of play and in the exact angle with which a player hits another player, in determining whether a hit will be legal or illegal under these new, more strict guidelines with sky-high penalties. Indeed, it is hard to determine unless the play is reviewed with cameras from many different angles and with slow motion capabilities. However, if the NFL thinks defensive players trying to make critical plays in the midst of a frantic football game are able to make this same distinction, or that fans want them to, the NFL better think again. Players and fans will opt for a risky hit if it means the difference between making or missing a tackle, or landing a solid hit and simply causing an opponent to stumble.

During a day long field hockey tournament in high school in which I was the lead scorer of all the players from any team there that day, I broke my nose when a member of the opposing team slammed her head into me as I passed the ball to a teammate, earning a goal for the team and an assist for myself. Blood poured from my nose and down my uniform as I stumbled a bit from the blow, before running back to the 50-yard line, high fiving my teammates, to line up to go again before the refs blew the whistle and stopped play. I ended up having to go to the E.R., but as I sat on the sidelines bleeding, I just kept asking the coach to put me back in. It was like a scene straight out of one of a cliche' sports movie. The hit on me was probably an accident, or at least the girl had intended to hit me but not break my nose and send me to the E.R., but the bottom line is that that is what happened. Neither that girl nor her team should have been penalized. I was well aware of the risk when I signed up to play field hockey, and, as an aggressive goal scorer for our team, I frequently put myself in a position vulnerable to injury at the expense of scoring or making a big play. That's what I signed up for. That's what I call taking one for the team.

That is the price you pay to play the game. And I wasn't being paid millions of dollars to take that risk either. The suggestion the NFL seems to be harping on now more than ever is to play it safe. By all means, try holding back on making or taking hits or in any other aspect of a sport and let me know how far it gets you and if you don't get passed over time and time again for players who put themselves, and their safety, on the line.

Man up, NFL. We can protect players without going overboard.