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Hit Me Baby One More Time

October 22, 2010

Allison Scott
Hit Me Baby One More Time

After a particularly violent Sunday of football, the NFL is revamping its rules regarding dangerous hits, particularly those that are helmet-to-helmet. Three players were fined for their flagrant offenses but in the future punishment will also include suspension for any and all illegal violent hits. Much of the Sunday's aftermath has centered around Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison, who threatened to retire in light of his $75,000 fine.  Although Harrison didn't make good on his threat, the questions of retirement muddle the central issue: are such rules really good for the NFL? I think the answer is no, for two main reasons.

1. Sometimes things just happen.

Suspension is too harsh a punishment for an accidental hit. It seems clear to me that James Harrison’s collisions with Josh Cribbs and Mohamed Massoquoi and Falcons’ cornerback Dunta Robinson’s clash with Desean Jackson were unintentional, especially in the case of the latter incident, as Robinson was hurt just as much as Jackson. How can we expect players to play good “D” and yet punish them when that defense results in a more damaging hit? Players are taught to always go 100% and fly to the ball. A little thing called inertia makes it difficult for a 200 pound safety to be able to readjust when he's flying 100% towards the ball.

The clearly intentional damage Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather laid on Ravens’ tight end Todd Heap is worthy of reprimand – and Meriweather has rightly apologized since. In no way am I suggesting that malicious, intentional attempts to injure players should be tolerated and the NFL is justified in issuing harsh penalties for such offenders.

The disgruntled Harrison made this point in his statements after Sunday's game: "I don't want to see anyone injured, but I'm not opposed to hurting anyone." There’s an important distinction between hurting and injuring. Injuring is what ruins a player’s season, what makes us cringe, what makes us hold our breath, hoping it's not too serious. Hurting, on the other hand, is the way you wear down a player throughout the game, the way you shake their confidence and intimidate them. A good defender can instill fear in his opponents, even forcing a receiver to drop a pass as if he heard footsteps. A hard hit done right can be about hurting and not injuring, a sophisticated distinction. (Maybe Harrison should take up philosophy of language in his post-football years.)

2. There can be beauty in being a beast. (Admittedly, a more controversial point)

Hard hits are exciting. They make the game more fun to watch. The only possible rival to a big hit is a deep pass into the end zone. Part of what makes football great is the physicality of it. We admire players for their courage, their stamina, and their strength in such physically demanding situations. Football wouldn’t be football without some aspect of violence. Hard hits are unequivocally not good for people but they are something the sport requires – without them, it’s football in name only.

The obvious objection is why not make one more rule if it can save lives? We’re now finding out more about how dangerous playing in the NFL is. Some formers players have chronic neurological damage from years of head-banging trauma; several have met an untimely death before they even reach 50. This in conjunction with the recent tragic injury of Rutgers player Eric LeGrand makes rules to prevent danger not only justified but necessary.

This objection overlooks that there are measures already in place that deter excessively violent play. $75,000 is a steep price to pay for one day of football (even if you are making $20 million in three years). And injury prevention can’t be the only motive for making a rule – there must be considerations for what we’re giving up. We could prevent a lot of brain damage by doing away with the NFL altogether but that doesn’t mean we should.

Perhaps the truth is that football is inherently a dangerous game. Nonetheless, it is a privilege to be in the NFL and not a jail sentence – people aren’t compelled to endure it. If the violence is too much, then maybe try soccer.

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