Let me state right up front that I'm not getting into any debates about which hits this past week were legal or which were flagrant. That horse has been beat to death.
I'm also not complaining about the fines levied against players where no penalties were called - at least not directly.
No, my focus here is on doing what makes the most sense for the sport, in more ways than one. And the "no flag, no fine" tag line is not about letting anyone skate, it's about making sure that officials throw the flag appropriately. Here's why I think the best response to this hot-button issue is to get the zebras to call these hits as they happen.
Justice is Served - When a player is suspended for the subsequent game, it doesn't do anything to rectify the offense against the penalized player's opponent. You have to throw that flag so that the current game is affected, not a future game.
Additional Punishment is Justified - Whatever happens after the game, there is no question that something happened that was deemed a violation. I know our culture is "innocent until proven guilty" and that would seem to lead to a conclusion that if no flag was thrown, you can't just later say something was done illegally during the game. Take this analogy - if your town just sent you a speeding ticket without you ever having been pulled over or caught on camera, how would you feel? You'd feel like you were being fined for something without any evidence that it ever happened, and like you had no recourse to defend yourself against whatever accusations the authorities want to hit you with. And if you don't pay up, they'll hit you with worse fines, or maybe some jail time. That's what it's like for these players who don't have penalties called on them, then get ridiculous fines. When you call the penalty on the field, there should also be a greater responsibility to give the player a fair shake in the event of an appeal. As it stands, these fines and suspensions give the appearance of far too much unilateral power in Commissioner Goodell's hands, and I think there are serious questions about how consistently he's applied that power (but that's a topic for another article).
The Best Deterrent - Everyone is talking about how the fines are no deterrent to this undesired behavior - players past and present talk about their little savings fund they have put aside every season to pay their anticipated fines. But the escalation of this to suspensions is absurd, both because it doesn't help the team against whom the foul was committed, and because it punishes the fans as much as anything else. The fans want to see their team, including their favorite players. Certainly, for patterns of intentional violations, suspensions should be an option, but they should also be meted out cautiously. On the other hand, giving the officials a free hand to penalize on the field will be an even better deterrent, because as much as a player doesn't want to let his team and fans down by being suspended for a future game, he wants even less to let his team and fans down by giving the other team opportunities to win the game. The incentive to avoid definite penalties in this game will always trump the fear of possibly missing a future game. That's what you hear players saying all the time - things like, "We're not thinking about next month, or next week, we're thinking about this opponent we're facing now." When the punishment has an immediate impact, it will also have an immediate deterrent effect.
Looking through the official NFL rule book last night, I saw that there's a note in the section on flagrant hits that says, in effect, "Officials are encouraged to throw the flag if there is any doubt whether a hit is flagrant." Seems to me that a significant part of this problem is the reluctance of officials to make questionable calls. Who can blame them, in the wake of recent seasons where the league was rocked by scandalous blown calls in a number of important games? One more reason to consider having professional officiating crews, if you ask me. They should also be made accountable with fines and censure when they miss calls like this - if James Harrison's hit on Massaquoi was illegal and you're going to fine him for it, then the officials should also be punished for missing the call. Furthermore, the officials' fine should be in proportion to the punishment against the player, so that if they missed an exceptionally flagrant hit, they pay a heavier price for missing it.
Lastly, on this matter, I think that these fines should not be handed down by the Commissioner, but by a cross-functional committee composed of players, coaches, officiating crew members and league officers. That would not only ensure some degree of impartiality and reasonableness, but also provide all parties some learning and teaching opportunities to take back to their respective teams. Since players would be involved, penalized players could be sure that they weren't just being punished capriciously by a power-mad Roger Goodell, but that the punishment meted out was the thoughtful, reasoned conclusion of his peers.
I don't want any players to get hurt. I also don't want the character of the fast-paced, hard-hitting game that I enjoy watching to change. Ultimately, players are well-compensated and play the game voluntarily, and all know the associated risks that their game, season, or career could end at any moment. Over-legislating the game and causing players to over-think their actions will not just impact the enjoyment of the game, but the momentary hesitation has the potential of getting players injured just as much as before.