James Harrison: Another Dirty Bomb in a Sport That Needs Defusing

Paul WardContributor IIIDecember 15, 2011

What's best for the game, not bloodlust.
What's best for the game, not bloodlust.Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

And then along comes James Harrison

After the Steelers-Browns game on TNF, Neon Deon said it was no big thing what Harrison did, nothing the man could do, he was headed to a point. By the time he got there, McCoy was at another point. The target moved. Plus, Harrison had his head down. He couldn’t see that the ball was gone. 

Prime Time was Hall-of-Fame brilliant, but you wouldn’t say he was "fearless." He’s a tough guy all these years later, in his shawl and fur coat, but he was not that on the field. He let more than one runner go by. 

Anyway, who cares? It was all a joke up in the booth.

Thank God there was something to talk about after the game, some banter to sell Kay Jewelers. And yet the topic had no legs. Steve Mariucci had no wisdom. Marshall Faulk could only smile. Michael Irvin said a few right things, and then it was time to move on. 

In other words, in the culture of the NFL, Harrison’s hit is not a big deal. It’s a bigger deal than it used to be, but it’s a long way from the deal it should be.

A one-game suspension, whatever that’s worth, is not a big deal. And remember we’re talking about a recidivist who paid $100,000 in fines last year. Five hits like this in three years. Look at the number of penalties committed in the last three years—he’s always near the top.   

He’s habitual. He should probably have to go to Violents Anonymous. 

And what’s the incentive to change? This all becomes part of his persona, his edge. How else to get a doubt, a little bitty fear, a hesitation growing in your opponent’s mind?

So this may draw a mention from the coaches, it may be a topic when you’re getting taped up, you may think about it when your wife is putting on her eye shadow, but it’s not going to change the way players play. 

And so the question is: Why should this be a big deal? 

'After all, so-and-so did that same exact thing last week and he didn’t get flagged.' The enforcement is unfair. And after all, this is the game we love. By the way, how tough was it when the game first started on those coal-dust covered fields in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, with not much equipment and no money, and maybe you played a couple of games a day? People didn’t complain about that.  

That was when men were men. 

But here’s my point—you need to wipe the soot off your glasses and look again. The effort has always been to regulate the violence, to make the game risky and daredevelish, but also safe. It was never about death. It’s was never supposed to be two-legged NASCAR. 

Lest we forget that in 1905, 19 football players died of injuries suffered on the field.  

That’s why they got rid of the flying wedge and experimented with three downs, although that was considered “not conducive to the game.”

That’s why we’ve spent so much time trying to develop ever better equipment, and right now perhaps it is fair to say the equipment is not up to the threat. The physics keep changing, so we have to come up with new protection and, in the meantime, make up the deficit with new rules. 


But the reason this Harrison business is a big deal is because football is about fantasy and nobility. It’s much closer in spirit to what goes on in the Olympiad than the Coliseum—although some may prefer the latter.  

In the end, this sport may be a metaphor for war, but we go to it to get away from true horror. We take our kids to be part of a spectacle, where we can root and believe, and if our team doesn’t come through this season that’s okay, there’s always next year. We go to feel better about something, not worse. 

And so we don’t want the cheap shot—whether it's helmet-to-helmet or stomp the bastard—we see enough of that every day. We want to see glory, not debauchery. And possibility. We want to feel inspired, not cynical. 

The question is: What’s the appropriate amount of danger here?

There are several answers. There’s one amount for TV executives, another for players, coaches and trainers, another for fans and another for the union and the insurance companies. 

Which brings to mind former Carolina D-lineman Kris Jenkins, whose profile in The New York Times on November 11, included this quote: 

“I can’t blame anybody for my death. I made the choice to play football. I made the choice to walk through the concussions. I could have stopped. I could have said, 'My head hurts.' It was my choice, as a man. We consider football a gladiator sport because we understand you’re going to get hurt. You’re putting your life on the line. You might not die now, like in an old Roman arena, but five, 10 years down the road, you could. You know that."

“I wouldn’t change anything.” 

He wouldn’t change anything, but the commissioner should.  

The culture needs to be readjusted. It will take some fan education. It will take people inside the game to articulate why the Harrison hit is dirty. Why that doesn’t belong.

The problem is that you have to keep remembering that this is finally a game. It’s entertainment. It’s people playing roles. It’s theater in the round. 

For those players—and fans—who want to hit somebody to smithereens and then afterward talk about how tough they are and how this game is getting soft, they might want to put this into context. Think about relativity. This is not supposed to replicate real violence or real heroics.  

Just remember those men in southern Kandahar Province, say around the horn of Panjwa’I, riding the point, sometimes with no dog, no detector, just you and your wits in a sea of IEDs. 

Let’s remember what the game is and what it isn’t.


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