By Tim Dahlberg, AP Sports Columnist
NEW YORK (AP) – Hines Ward is a tough guy in a tough league, so it wasn’t surprising that he enjoyed the knockout hits his Steelers teammate James Harrison delivered Sunday against the Cleveland Browns.
“You see a guy like that, knocking guys out like that … he’s a man on a mission,” Ward said. “He sets the tempo for everybody.”
Harrison liked his body of work, too — particularly the helmet-to-helmet hit that, though technically legal, left wide receiver Joshua Cribbs laid out on the field.
“I thought Cribbs was asleep,” Harrison said. “A hit like that geeks you up, especially when you find out the guy is not really hurt, he’s just sleeping. He’s knocked out but he’s going to be OK.”
Harrison’s hits weren’t even the worst on a day when the violence of professional football was on full display. That dubious honor would go to Atlanta’s Dunta Robinson for launching himself head first into the Eagles’ DeSean Jackson, knocking both players out cold.
Football can be a hurt business, but there was so much hurting going on in Week 6 of the NFL season that alarms went off at league headquarters. On Monday, a top NFL executive told The Associated Press that the league will considering suspending players for illegal hits instead of just fining them.
Maybe they should make them quit talking, too. Judging from the reaction of most players to a crackdown, a league that celebrates the big hit is filled with players who can’t wait to be the next one to make that big hit.
“If you get a chance to knock somebody out, you’re going to knock them out,” said Falcons wide receiver Roddy White. “Anytime you get that opportunity, even on offense, if they’re chasing the ball and we get a chance to knock them out, we go for the big hit.”
That is the culture of football, and it’s ingrained in players from the day they first put on pads in their local Pop Warner league. It’s also a big reason millions of people tune in every week to watch what is by far the most popular sport in the country.
But if the NFL is truly serious about protecting its players amid mounting evidence of the long-term damage hits to the head can cause, it needs to be as aggressive in dealing with helmet-to-helmet hits as its players are in making those hits.
Putting up posters in locker rooms warning of the danger of concussions and donating $1 million to fund studies into the effects of concussions was a nice — albeit late — start at dealing with head injuries. But the root cause of concussions is players getting knocked silly, and so far the league hasn’t cracked down harshly enough on players who head hunt with their helmets.
It’s hardly a new issue and it’s one Commissioner Roger Goodell has addressed — at least on paper. Three years ago, the NFL issued a memo to officials instructing them to eject players who made illegal hits to the head, and Goodell sent a memo to all teams the next year saying any conduct that “unnecessarily risks the safety of other players” would lead to harsher discipline than before.
But no one gets ejected. And millionaire players can laugh off fines.
Meanwhile, the hits keep coming. And they in no way resemble the hits of the past.
“The fundamentally old way of wrapping up and tackling seems to have faded away,” NFL executive vice president of football operations Ray Anderson told the AP. “A lot of the increase is from hits to blow guys up. That has become a more popular way of doing it. Yes, we are concerned they are getting away from the fundamentals of tackling, and maybe it has been coached that way. We’re going to have to look into talking to our coaches.”
Don’t bother. To a man, the coaches say they would never teach headhunting and don’t know of any coach who would.
Letting the players know they could be suspended, though, is a start. Actually suspending a few would be even better.
And maybe it’s time to dust off the old memo on ejections and give it to every official in the league. Make sure they understand that they have the power to remove a player for a flagrant hit without being second guessed.
It’s pretty simple. Helmet-to-helmet hits cause concussions. Repeated concussions can cause brain damage and lead to dementia.
A crackdown may not be popular, or well received. Fans enjoy the big hits, and players already feel the league tries to restrain them too much on the field as it is.
But it will be a success if the same players who celebrate the hits today are able to remember them 20 years from now.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.