James Harrison Suspension: Will Refusal to Change Damage Steelers LB's Career?

Andrea Hangst@FBALL_AndreaFeatured Columnist IVDecember 14, 2011

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 8:   James Harrison #92 of the Pittsburgh Steelers tackles  Colt McCoy #12 of the Cleveland Browns during the game on December 8, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  The Steelers won 14-3.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison became the first player suspended for violating the league's ban on helmet-to-helmet hits, being forced to sit one game and give up his $75,000 paycheck in the process.

He's also the first player to be suspended for a tackle since the mid-1980s. Harrison's hit came as Cleveland Browns quarterback Colt McCoy tucked the ball under his arm with intent to run. As he ran and approached the line of scrimmage, he pulled the ball back out and was planning to throw.

In the split second between McCoy switching from running back to quarterback, he was hit by Harrison, in a seemingly-inevitable, incidental hit, the kind of which happens all the time with zero malice but yet, still results in fines and now, suspensions.

I think it's clear what camp I'm in when it comes to discussing the validity of the rule, the enforcement of the rule and who receives punishment and how. But, that's not what I'm here to talk about.

Instead, I'm concerned about what impact this pattern of behavior will have on Harrison's career—the remaining years of it, as well as the legacy he will leave behind once he retires.

Speaking on ESPN's NFL Live, former Steelers running back and personal friend of Harrison's Jerome Bettis said that Harrison not only won't change the way he plays the game, but that he can't: "[H]e said to me, ‘I’m not going to worry about it. I’m going to play my game. If they suspend me they suspend me, but I’m not going to change the way I play football.’”

Bettis added that Harrison is aware that this will likely lead to more fines and suspensions, but that he's accepted that fact and decided that playing the game the way he's accustomed to and the way he's been effective is the best course of action for the future.

Harrison has earned a reputation as one of the hardest-hitting linebackers to play the game, helping the Steelers defense to become one of the most intimidating in the NFL. But that hard-hitting style has come under fire in recent years, with Harrison being fined repeatedly for sacking quarterbacks too roughly and coming at offensive players helmet-first.

It's become such an issue that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has had to meet with the Steelers head coach, Mike Tomlin, to warn him not to teach his defense to lead with their helmets or hit so hard or else face fines himself.

Granted, it's hard to imagine a way for a player to lunge forward to make a tackle or sack a quarterback without his head being part of the action. And a number of players on offense have made it quietly clear that they'd rather get hit in the head than in the knees, considering the former might make them miss a game but the latter might end their season or even their career.

It's also hard for a veteran linebacker like Harrison to change his playing style, one that he's had and honed practically his entire life, based on a single shift in the rules. But his unwillingness to adapt could have a disastrous effect on his career and his legacy.

If Harrison doesn't change, then yes, he will be suspended again. While this first suspension was just for a single game, the number will increase with every violation he makes. At some point, Goodell is going to get fed up and force him off the field for half a season, maybe longer.

A suspension that long could spell the end of Harrison's very successful career and will only make it easier for his critics to claim that he's one of the dirtiest to ever play the game. Despite his impressive statistics, it might hinder any efforts to one day induct him into the NFL Hall of Fame.

At the very least, more incidents like this one will see Harrison's support, even in Pittsburgh, start to wane. Already, fans believe Harrison went too far in hitting McCoy, even if Harrison (and I) disagree.

It's a hard feat indeed to get the Steelers loyal fanbase to turn against a player. But with every hit, every fine and every suspension, Harrison becomes less and less liked by the Steelers faithful, and receives even more contempt (than he deserves) from members of the football media.

Incidental contact is impossible to avoid, and players receive fines all the time for things they had little or no control over. It's unfortunate and it would be better if the rules designed to protect players could be more clearly defined and consistently enforced.

However, until that point, it would behoove Harrison and others to be more willing to adapt their playing style rather than just take the fines and suspensions and continue on as usual. It's already done damage to his reputation and it just might send him on his way to an early retirement.