After the game, (James) Harrison said he tries to hurt opposing players because it helps the Steelers win, although he doesn’t try to injure players.
— AP story about James Harrison saying he might retire from football.
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It’s all there, I think. The whole NFL issue — right there in one seemingly incongruous English sentence. You already know that Harrison, the Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker, had two helmet hits in the game against Cleveland Sunday, one that caused a Joshua Cribbs concussion, the other that caused a Mohammed Massaquoi concussion.
The Massaquoi hit was particularly savage — savage enough that the NFL fined Harrison $75,000 (though not savage enough to draw an actual penalty during the game). Harrison was so outraged — and perhaps puzzled — by this fine that he was excused from practice Wednesday, apparently so he could ponder his future. He had said on the radio that he was not sure he could go on playing in a game that was foreign to him. Those hits, he says, were exactly what he had been TAUGHT to do on a football field. They were clean hits. They were textbook hits. And now, to have those hits referred to as dirty, to be fined for them and perhaps (down the road) to be suspended for these kinds of hits — as the NFL is now threatening — well, supposedly Harrison isn’t sure he wants to play that game.
This is actually a common reaction among some players to the NFL’s recent reaction to big hits. The league has talked about really cracking down on these hits to protect players, and I’ve read numerous comments from players who think that’s a lousy thing. Most of it is summed up in what Brian Urlacher told the Chicago Tribune, in the midst of a rather entertaining tirade: “”You know what we should do? We should just put flags on everybody. Let’s make it the NFFL — the National Flag Football League. It’s unbelievable.”
But to get back to the line at the top — I think whole thing is wrapped up there. Read it again.
— Harrison wants to hurt opponents.
— Hurting opponents helps win games.
— Harrison doesn’t want to injure opponents.
The town between Hurt and Injure. The valley between Pain and Damage. This the tiny little sliver of land where the National Football League tries to exist. Pro football is about hard contact, it has always been about hard contact. There’s Chuck Bednarik standing over an unconscious Frank Gifford. There’s Raiders owner Al Davis explaining his basic strategy for winning: “The quarterback must go down. And he must go down hard.” There’s Turkey Joe Jones throwing Terry Bradshaw on his head. There’s Butkus, snarling, breathing smoke even on warm days, tackling with such ferocity that you can almost feel him trying to finish the play off by biting off the running back’s head. “I never set out to hurt anybody deliberately,” Butkus would famously say, “unless it was, you know, important, like a league game.” There’s Lawrence Taylor breaking Joe Theisman’s leg on Monday Night Football, and the Gifford himself, now as announcer, telling you turn away if you cannot handle the gruesomeness.
And as the players get bigger, strong, faster, the hits get harder, louder, more spectacular. The NFL may claim otherwise … but the league wants this. We as fans want this. Big hits equals big action. It’s not that hard to understand. The NFL releases videos with the most ferocious of these hits, set to music, with stories about the hits being told lovingly, Crunch Course, Crunch Course II, Big Blocks and King Size hits. Steve Atwater once told me he would put his kids to bed at night with the story of the preposterously crushing hit put on running back Christian Okoye.
We love big hits. We remember them. We talk about them forever — who can forget running back Earl Campbell lowering his head into the chest of Isaiah Robertson and sending him flying backward (Campbell would always feel bad about that hit; he said for a while it ruined Isaiah Robertson’s life — it is still shown quite often in highlight packages). In different cities, the NFL teams celebrate the most breathtaking hits on the scoreboard, that big hit usually sponsored by a local company, a brick company, maybe. This is FOOTBALL man. We can’t tolerate missed tackles. We want receivers to fear the middle. We watch the linebacker close in behind the quarterback, the blind side, and the quarterback can’t see him coming, and we know it, and the cheers grow louder, the anticipation thicker, we wait impatiently for it, a hit so hard that the ball will go flying and the quarterback will seem to bend backward and …
But we don’t want anyone to get injured. Not seriously injured, for sure. That’s the worst, that moment when the game has stopped, the doctors are huddled over someone on the ground (“He’s not moving!”) and the players surround the scene, many of them with their helmets off, on one knee, like they’re praying, some are praying, the football game has turned into a funeral scene, no, nobody wants that. Isn’t that why fans always cheer as players come off the field, either under their own power or on a stretcher? We are with you! We are thinking about you! Nobody wants to see a player seriously hurt, his life forever altered. Nobody wants to meet a former NFL hero in a mall or an airport, and see them limp and groan as they walk. No, nobody wants that. No we want them all to pop back up, like Wile E Coyote always pops up no matter how many times he falls off a cliff, no matter how many times he is crushed by a boulder, no matter how many times his Acme rocket collides head on into cactus.
And here is the riddle of football — how can you hurt without injuring, how can you weaken without harming, how can you send a receiver flying backward and have him pop right back up, good as new, Wile E. Coyote gone back to the drawing board? The NFL keeps wanting us to believe there’s a real answer to this riddle. The league makes the equipment better — or at least that’s what we keep hearing and desperately want to believe. They make the pads more secure, we hear. They make the helmets safer, we are told (though the New York Times had this haunting story Wednesday). The trainers tape every bendable part before before every practice and every game as if the players are windows in the eye of a hurricane — or at least that’s what we choose to believe.
The NFL tinkers with the rules constantly to prevent the most dangerous of hits — the chop-block, the clip, the clothesline, the horse collar, the helmet-to-helmet, the trip, the facemask grab, the forearm shiver, the punch, the unloading on a defenseless receiver and whatever devastating tackle they will come with next. The NFL makes the injuries part of the fabric of the sport so that they sound bland … they even release injury reports each week with the tamest-sounding of conditions — probable, questionable, out. Probable means they’re playing no matter how much pain they’re in. Questionable means they might not play, but they also might. Out means out. Put someone else on your fantasy team.
And with all this, we want to believe that it’s all not as bad as it looks. We need to believe it so we can enjoy the games. We LOVE pro football. And when we see something like this — those are the 57 injuries this week listed as concussions, head injuries or migraines — well, it’s tough to know exactly how to feel. The town between Hurt and Injure. The valley between Pain and Damage. We want to believe this place exists. We LOVE pro football.
Some years ago, I wrote a story about the pain my friend Priest Holmes would feel after every single game. Priest Holmes was a running back in the NFL for 10 years, a great one. He suffered a torn ACL, a devastating hip injury, and at the end there were times when he lost feeling after hits. He carried the football 1,780 times, caught another 334 passes, and that means even if you take away his 94 touchdowns that would mean he still was tackled more than 2,000 times, which of course doesn’t include the many times he had to block, or his time as kamikaze man on special teams. It doesn’t include what happened after the whistle. Defenders would do just about anything to stop him, intimidate him, discourage him — you don’t want to know what goes on inside those piles of pads and players. After games, he would walk slowly to get a long rubdown, he would sit in hot tub of water for a long time, and we reporters — being reporters — would gripe about what was taking him so long.
When I wrote about his extreme pain, I got a surprising number of emails from people who made it clear: They didn’t want to hear it. One response in particular stands out in my mind, it was an email tirade from a very angry guy who said he worked hard for a living, and he didn’t care how much Priest Holmes hurt. It was his job to hurt. And anyway, the man wrote, he doubted the pain was even that bad. Priest was just complaining to get attention. He wasn’t tough enough. He wasn’t durable enough. And those hits are not THAT bad.
I was disgusted by the callousness of the man. Disgusted. And then I realized, no … my disgust … had little to do with the man … I was disgusted because … haven’t I believed many of those same things? Haven’t I thought, “Oh that hit didn’t look that bad?” Haven’t I thought, “Oh, he’s faking the injury?” Haven’t I thought, “Come on, how long should a leg injury keep you out?” Doesn’t loving professional football DEMAND that you believe many of those same things?
So where are we now? There’s a real momentum now to stop the most bloodthirsty of hits. We do, many of us, most of us even, worry that the game is getting too scary, too painful, it’s hard to maintain our suspension of disbelief. We want the NFL to do something about the injuries. But, what? We still want the NFL to still be about pain. We want both those things, same time. And are we really willing — in that place deep down, in what what Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men” called “places you don’t talk about at parties” — really willing as fans to give up pain to stop injuries?
“We should just put flags on everybody,” Urlacher said, you will remember. “Let’s make it the NFFL — the National Flag Football League. It’s unbelievable.” How many fans do you think cheered when he said those words. How many fans felt like he was taking those words right out of their own gut?
I should add here that in the actual interview, Harrison explained the difference between hurting a player and injuring them — or at least the difference in his mind. “I don’t want to see anyone injured,” he told reporters. “But I’m not opposed to hurting anyone. … There’s a difference. When you’re injured, you can’t play. But when you’re hurt, you can shake it off and come back. I try to hurt people.”
How can someone — even a former NFL defensive player of the year — tackle someone hard enough to hurt them but not injure them? Harrison didn’t explain it. And, of course, he hasn’t exactly walked that fine line. He was reportedly thinking about retiring before playing in a league where he could not cause as much pain, but Harrison is back at practice today. Turns out that he has decided he loves football too much to retire from it. Yep. That’s about where most of us stand.