Repeat offenders like Pittsburgh's James Harrison need bigger deterrents from the NFL than fines and one-match bans for "devastating" hits.
A hit in the pocket not enough for NFL's repeat offenders
Even after he became a star with the Pittsburgh Steelers, James Harrison lugged around the equipment bag from his NFL Europe days with the Rhein Fire until it eventually fell apart.
The way the story goes is that Harrison did it to remind himself how difficult the trip had been. In light of recent developments, it also suggests he has a hard time letting some things go.
Take Harrison's most recent run-in with Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner. It was the result of his fifth illegal hit on a quarterback over the last three seasons - a span in which he also had two other fines for unnecessary roughness - but the first to get him suspended.
Harrison's loss of a game cheque will cost him US$73,000 (Dh268,000) or so and that is on top of the $125,000 he has already handed over. If you think he was chastened, think again.
Harrison's immediate reaction after the suspension was to tweet "Lol!" Soon after, he told a reporter about the helmet-to-face mask smash he put on Colt McCoy, the Cleveland Browns quarterback, last Thursday: "If I would have really hit him, I would have knocked him out."
Later, Harrison posted another tweet: "Thank you to all my fans and supporters, I'm just going to move on from here and get ready for my next game."
Barring a successful appeal, that will not be on Monday night, when Pittsburgh play San Francisco with Ben Roethlisberger, their quarterback, trying to make do on a gimpy ankle and the Steelers competing with the Ravens for the top spot in the AFC North.
"We're disappointed. We're disappointed for James because we know how hard he's worked to play within the rules," Mike Tomlin, the coach, said. "We accept the judgement rendered by the league office and we'll move forward."
Not so fast. The Steelers have already been fined at least 13 times for illegal hits this season. They were also the only team in the league to vote against the new collective bargaining agreement in August, unhappy with the appeals process in place regarding fines and suspensions.
It was a pet peeve of Harrison's long before that. After previous run-ins with the league's disciplinarians, he has threatened to retire rather than change the way he plays and called Goodell "stupid", "a puppet" and "a dictator" in the course of an interview with Men's Journal during the lockout.
At the last Super Bowl, he used the stage to taunt the commissioner for trying to legislate against the vicious hits Harrison specialises in.
"We'll lay a pillow down where I'm going to tackle them, so they don't hit the ground too hard, Mr Goodell," he said.
By Harrison's twisted logic, he was "all for player safety," including his own. But in the next breath, Harrison confided he had suffered several concussions, had not reported any of them to team officials in the past and had no plans to start.
"You shouldn't be able to come back in the game," he said. "But if they don't know, they don't have that decision to make."
Whether McCoy was as forthcoming with the Browns after the collision with Harrison remains something of a mystery.
Pat Shurmur, the Cleveland coach, has been coy about whether the team complied with the league protocol and tested McCoy, who returned to the game but remembered little about it afterward.
The league is running low on able bodies as it is, and levying stiffer fines and suspensions for any player who knocks another one out will not help keep more of them on the field.
When Harrison hammered Cleveland's Mohamed Massaquoi in October 2010, the receiver's agent stated the obvious: that fines, no matter how stiff, aren't enough to make players change.
"Harrison has made $20 million over the past three years, and they only fined him $75,000?" the agent Brian Ayrault said. "To me, that's not going to be a deterrent. The Browns are probably going to be without a starter this week. I don't think that fine is a deterrent or fair to competitive balance."
The suspension makes Harrison the first player to miss game time under new league rules aimed at curtailing "devastating" hits.
It is a first step, but still on the light side, considering Harrison is the NFL's biggest repeat offender.
If Tomlin and the Steelers coaching staff either can't, or won't, convince him to lower his aim on hits, and if a one-game suspension doesn't do the trick, the next one is going to have to be long enough to get the message across.
The last thing the NFL can afford at the moment is more players trying to tear each other's heads off.
* Associated Press