Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Gray Area of Helmet-to-Helmet Hits

What can be done?

Suspensions for vicious hits are demanded, but it’s easier to cry foul when these hits are made against your team or the hitter was from a team you strongly dislike. Considering how beloved and reviled the Pittsburgh Steelers are, comments by linebacker James Harrison are probably not helping the cause of defensive players whose charges are to take down ball carriers are quickly as possible.

He knocked two players out on his own yesterday; Cleveland Browns wide receivers Joshua Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi. The former hit was deemed legal and the other is being investigated. Even from the press box at the New Meadowlands Stadium, outrage towards Harrison was heard loud and clear from folks who have always believed he played a little dirty.

Courtesy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP

While fans who saw the Browns/Steelers game were screaming at the top of their lungs, fans in Philadelphia and Atlanta were clasping their chests after Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson and Eagles wideout DeSean Jackson collided. Robinson had a clear shot at Jackson and the hit was so brutal that not only was Jackson knocked out, but Robinson himself.

In New England, Brandon Meriweather, an emerging safety for the Patriots, leveled Baltimore Ravens tight end Todd Heap. Harrison’s comments may have gained more attention, but on WEEI’s Dale & Holley radio show, Meriweather wasn’t so apologetic about the play, either.

In a different and unintentional context in East Rutherford, there was another helmet-to-helmet hit; this time on a kick return as Detroit Lions reserve linebacker Zack Follett collided with New York Giants rookie defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. Follett lay motionless for a few tense minutes and was transported off the field in a stretcher.

[Note: as a fan or member of the media I have NEVER been to a sporting event where a crowd and media were completely and utterly silent. It scared the bejesus out of every person in the New Meadowlands Stadium; scarier because save for the media, 90% of the people in the building did not know that Follett was reported as conscious and able to move his extremities ten minutes later.]Yesterday featured an unusual spate of helmet-to-helmet collisions. Five were mentioned here, but considering that every game features a pretty hard hit and the NFL’s greater attention on concussions, the latest conversation on these types of hits has gained traction where previous discussions were stopped in their tracks.

Calls for suspensions are being met thanks to comments from league Vice President Ray Anderson. Talk about immediate repercussions will continue to clog the airwaves and bandwidth for the next week or so, yet, as understandable as it is to want to see punishment for these kinds of plays, there’s one issue this Scribe takes with immediate suspension; are you going to at least eject the players at fault first?

To go from a $5,000 fine to a suspension and withheld game check is quite the leap. In every other team sport where physical contact is highly intense, there are grades of punishment for illegal (or apparently illegal) hits. Penalties are exacted and ejections are handed down if such illegal contact merits a player’s dismissal for the game.

Harrison was allowed to continue playing. Meriweather was allowed to continue playing. If Robinson wasn’t concussed himself, he would have been allowed to continue playing. (The Follett injury doesn't merit any controversy anywhere).

This isn’t to say that they should or shouldn’t have been tossed; no matter what us armchair head coaches may believe, it’s not that easy to determine if there was intent to injure, therefore it could be considered unfair to have thrown those players out of the game. Ejections in the NFL are rare to begin with and they are usually the result of unsportsmanlike conduct above and beyond even a post-play tussle. It takes some form of retaliation such as swinging and landing a punch onto an opponent or stomping a player to purposely harm.

Helmet-to-helmet hits are an area where the NFL should consider expanding their policy on ejections. Whether they should be considered on a case-by-case basis at the discretion of the officiating crew or there should be universal and automatic ejections should be equally as important as giving consideration to suspensions. These officials know if players have a history of dangerous hitting just as referees in the NBA – a league that has flagrant gradations for contact that could injure players – are aware of players known for pushing the limits of acceptable contact.

Yet, as Doug Farrar points out for Shutdown Corner, the officiating crews themselves may need to go under scrutiny. “Perhaps the most worrisome aspect of the two James Harrison hits is that neither one was flagged by Walt Anderson's crew,” said Farrar. “So, what does it say if Harrison is ejected from the game, and suspended from further action, and Anderson's crew is allowed to skate?”

As crazy as it might sound to some of you, if the NFL is going to take measures to punish players for these hits, they might want to give a call to Colin Campbell, Gary Bettman and the National Hockey League. Hockey is the only other popular sport in North America that moves at a quicker pace than football with many players equaling linebackers and defensive ends in sheer size. Though media coverage isn’t as voluminous, player safety concerns are vocalized as much in the NHL as in the NFL.

Underneath the chatter about this NFL controversy was the suspension of Phoenix Coyotes forward Shane Doan after this hit (via Puck Daddy):

In this play, Doan clearly comes in late and was certainly a blindside hit. Though Doan was not penalized, he was suspended for three games after a decision was made from the league offices. Hockey refs deal with plays like this on a regular basis and if deemed necessary, can immediately eject the offender with a game misconduct penalty. The league office makes a decision the following morning on disciplining the player further.

If you followed the commentary on the PD blog – and this Scribe agrees – the NHL has been uneven with doling out punishments over the years. Fans and media constantly point at other teams to compare and contrast similar penalties, so no one is ever completely satisfied. There have been some horrendous clashes over the years and as bad as Doan’s hit was, it’ll be tame compared to other hits you’ll hear about this year.

If you feel that this blog post lacks a definitive answer to what can be done, in truthfulness, there isn’t a definitive answer. Someone like myself – a five-foot-seven Slim Jim-sized guy who never played more than rough-touch football – can only speculate and suggest, therefore beating you with the words ‘it’s part of the game’ are going to ring rather hollow. Even with players themselves speaking up, they are coming from a position of defending their teammates rather than being removed and truly honest about these collisions. There’s not going to be a right answer to this issue, regardless of what the Competition Committee says at season’s end or words are spoken by viewers and media in the interim.

No matter what comes of this, the NFL should not be the only brand of football that needs to take a deep look into these matters. At the collegiate and high school levels, aggressiveness of future pros begins there. Even the reborn Arena Football League and our neighbors to the north in the Canadian Football League deal with these sort of plays on a regular basis. We may now have the immediate, in-season changes starting this week, but during the offseason as the NFL and NFLPA battle for a new labor agreement, let’s also hope that they take time to work with those in the amateur levels and other pro leagues to ensure consistency and perhaps reinforce tackling techniques across the board.

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