Two weeks ago, the NFL declared that it was going to more strictly enforce rules relating to helmet-to-helmet hits. In a statement issued by Ray Anderson, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations, the NFL said, "We've got to get the message to players that these devastating hits and head shots will be met with a very necessary higher standard of accountability. We have to dispel the notion that you get one free pass in these egregious or flagrant shots."
The NFL then levied substantial fines to New England Patriots' safety Brandon Meriweather, Atlanta Falcons' cornerback Dunta Robinson, and Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison for hits that occurred the previous Sunday. Robinson and Meriweather received a $50,000 fine while Harrison received a $75,000 fine as a repeat offender.
These were hefty penalties by NFL standards. During the preseason, Detroit Lions' defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh grasped Cleveland Browns' quarterback Jake Delhomme's face mask in a manner that twisted Delhomme's head. Suh then wrapped his arms around Delhomme's head and slammed him violently into the ground. The fine that Suh received for these actions was only $7,500.
The rules have not changed between the preseason and now. The NFL decided that it needed to send a stronger message and dramatically increased the standard fines.
There were, however, some rule changes during the offseason. In fact, James Harrison's hit and Dunta Robinson's hit would have been completely legal during the 2009 season.
The rule changes relating to helmet-to-helmet contact read: Rule 12, Section 2, Article 8, Paragraph F
"If a player uses any part of his helmet (including the top/crown and forehead/”hairline” parts) or facemask to butt, spear, or ram an opponent violently or unnecessarily. Although such violent or unnecessary use of the helmet and facemask is impermissible against any opponent, game officials will give special attention in administering this rule to protecting those players who are in virtually defenseless postures, including but not limited to:
(1) Forcibly hitting the defenseless player’s head, neck, or face with the helmet or facemask, regardless of whether the defensive player also uses his arms to tackle the defenseless player by encircling or grasping him; or
(2) Lowering the head and violently or unnecessarily making forcible contact with the “hairline” or forehead part of the helmet against any part of the defenseless player’s body; or
(3) “Launching” (springing forward and upward) into a defenseless player, or otherwise striking him in a way that causes the defensive player’s helmet or facemask to forcibly strike the defenseless player’s head, neck, or face—even if the initial contact of the defender’s helmet or facemask is lower than the defenseless player’s neck. (Examples: a defender buries his facemask into a defenseless player’s high chest area, but the defender’s trajectory as he leaps into the defenseless player causes the defender’s helmet to strike the defenseless player violently in the head or face; or a defender, using a face-on posture or with his head slightly lowered, hits a defenseless player in an area below the defenseless player’s neck, then the defender’s head moves upward, resulting in strong contact by the defender’s mask or helmet with the defenseless player’s head, neck, or face [an example is the so-called “dip and rip” technique]).
Note: The provisions of section (f) do not prohibit incidental contact by the mask or noncrown parts of the helmet in the course of a conventional tackle on an opponent."
It defines defenseless players as, "(i) a player in the act of or just after throwing a pass; (ii) a receiver catching or attempting to catch a pass; (iii) a runner already in the grasp of a tackler and whose forward progress has been stopped; (iv) a kickoff or punt returner attempting to field a kick in the air; and (v) a player on the ground at the end of a play."
The NFL certainly exhibited its dedication to the enforcement of its rule changes with the substantial fines that Harrison, Meriweather and Robinson received. But, where is the follow through? Helmet-to-helmet collisions against defenseless players have not ended.
With 1:31 remaining in the first half of the Sunday night matchup between the New Orleans Saints and the Pittsburgh Steelers, the officials called a relatively ticky-tack pass interference penalty against Hines Ward for pushing off against Pierson Prioleau. This was the type of pass interference that is not normally called but is against the rules by the letter of the law.
How is it that the officials could notice such a minor infraction yet totally ignore the helmet-to-helmet hit on that very same play? The officials are supposed to be focusing on cracking down on these type of hits, to the point that the NFL made a very public stance against these type of hits.
Ben Roethlisberger hung Hines Ward out to dry a little bit on that play, which is probably why Ward felt the need to push off on Prioleau. Ward was bracketed by Prioleau and Leigh Torrence. As the ball arrived, Torrence put a hit on Hines that separated him from the ball. Both men were slow to get up, and New Orleans had to burn a timeout because of how slow Torrence was to get up. Neither man suffered a concussion, but Torrence was forced to sit out a play.
The problem is that by the new 2010 rules, Leigh Torrence's hit was illegal. Not only did the officials refuse to throw the flag, but the NFL has not fined Torrence either.
The league made it very clear that they are going to punish players very strictly, even if they are first-time offenders. The league made it very clear that a play does not have to draw a flag in order to draw a fine when they fined James Harrison.
Where is Torrence's fine? Moreover, where is the media backlash against the lack of a fine? Many members of the media jumped right on the helmet-to-helmet hit bandwagon two weeks ago. Where are they now?
If this is truly all about player safety and the NFL is serious about eliminating these hits, why do they pick and choose when to enforce their rules? Concussion prevention is serious business and should be treated as such.
Unfortunately, it seems clear that the NFL isn't serious about enforcing its rules. It only wants to come off clean in the eyes of the public, and in turn protect its bottom line. There is nothing wrong with protecting the league's financial interests. However, to take the stance that the NFL is serious about concussion prevention because three players were sidelined by concussions one week, then to do nothing about the same type of hit two weeks later is nothing short of hypocritical.