The NFL is going to have another Darryl Stingley incident if it does not swiftly disincentive the helmet shots we saw on Sunday. DeSean Jackson may be out for a while after suffering a serious concussion. Brandon Meriweather hit Todd Heap after an incomplete pass by launching himself helmet first at Heap, in what is – at best – a completely reckless act. The story of the day, though, is James Harrison. He knocked both Joshua Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoiout of the game with head injuries, twice leading with his helmet on vicious hits.
Let me clear one thing out of the way, both of those hits should be considered illegal pursuant to Rule 12, Section 2, Article 8(f), and should have been penalized on the field. I’ve seen reference on some comments that the hit on Cribbs was perfectly legal because he was running. That is not true. You can have unnecessary roughness penalty by leading with the helmet even if it is a runner who is not considered defenseless (forward progress stopped or held up). The rule provides for a penalty “if a player uses any part of his helmet . . . to butt, spear, or ram an opponent violently or unnecessarily.” The rule goes on to say that “although such violent or unnecessary use of the helmet or facemask is impermissible against any opponent, game officials will give special attention to administering this rule to protect players in virtually defenseless postures . . .” (emphasis mine).
I suppose the term “violently or unnecessarily” is subject to interpretation, though I suspect most unbiased observers would agree that what Harrison did on both hits qualifies. He lowered his arms into his body and clearly went in head first on Cribbs, when he could have wrapped him up with a textbook “real football” tackle instead, and then, with his arms tucked into his body, launched himself at Massaquoi (who does meet the definition of defenseless posture) with his helmet, rather than again using his arms and chest to make a clean hit.
As I often like to do in situations like this where people make claims that what Harrison did was how the game is played, or that we are wussifying the sport when we decry plays like these, I try to look through the archives to search for truth. I have no doubt that people have perpetrated hits like this many times in the past. What I don’t find, though, is any evidence that this was ever considered an accepted and praised part of the game. Soon after helmets (plastic ones with facemasks, not the leather ones) came into play, their use as a weapon was questioned and villified. For example, this article from 1955 asking if the “armor did more harm than good”, or this one from 1961 discussing the rise in player deaths at the high school and college level, mostly from increased head trauma. Interestingly, in light of yesterday’s non-penalties, is this quote from a 1962 piece: “Blame has been put on officials, who have been charged with being lax and permissive . . . ‘failure to call unnecessary roughness penalty leaves the kids with the impression that officials condone it.'”
Those hits were only the beginning, though. After the game, Harrison commented that “[y]ou hate to see anyone down like that, but then you realize he just went to sleep for a little bit and he came out of it and he’s going to be OK,” and later, “[t]hat’s football.” No, it is not football, contrary to what he and his slightly biased head coach might say. Putting his “head across the bow” (as Harrison also stated) should not be an acceptable part of the game.
I am curious to see the league’s response to what happened yesterday. Players respond to incentives, positive and negative, and the incentives in this case need to be sufficiently meaningful to change behavior. I’m in favor of suspension, particularly for repeated acts. My curiousity in how the league views this is not just as someone who writes about the league, but also as someone who has a son who is getting into playing sports. If Commissioner Goodell is serious about enforcing things like the integrity and image of the game, then these types of hits are far more serious for the league’s future than a suspension for an individual player’s off-field behavior. If this style of play is implicitly condoned and not met with swift and strong statements from the sport’s highest levels, I know one dad who will not promote this sport as an option. Players put their health at risk all the time in this game and things happen, but tucking your arms in and leading with the helmet twice to take players out is the opposite of manly; it is cowardly and despicable. [photos via Getty]