NFL Cracks Down On Flagrant Hits

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The NFL is cracking down on dangerous and flagrant hits. On Tuesday, the league said it will immediately suspend players who make such plays — particularly those involving helmets. Last weekend, several players were injured in violent collisions.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

If you're a football fan, today is either the day the NFL killed the game or saved it. People are lining up on both sides of an emotional debate after today's news that the National Football League will begin immediately suspending players for dangerous and flagrant tackles.

As NPR's Tom Goldman reports, the action follows an especially violent weekend on the field.

TOM GOLDMAN: Calling it bloody Sunday probably is too melodramatic, but what happened during this past Sunday's full slate of NFL games certainly made a many a football fan and announcer cringe.

(Soundbite of broadcast NFL games)

Unidentified Man #1: Massaquoi was drilled. Oh my goodness. Harrison, again, laying the wood, and he is slow to get up.

Unidentified Man #2: From the 32, on third down and six, Kolb in trouble. Gets - oh, a big hit on DeSean Jackson, and there is a penalty marker.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Man #3: This is 15 yards. Oh - and a fine coming this week, no doubt.

GOLDMAN: Three hits in three different games. In each instance, a defensive player, leading with the head, rammed into a receiver focused on catching the ball. Two of the plays ended with concussed athletes laying on the ground motionless. Fox game announcer and former player Daryl Johnston watched as an Atlanta defensive back blew up - in the vernacular - Philadelphia wide receiver DeSean Jackson.

Mr. DARYL JOHNSTON (Fox Sports Football Analyst): But we've got to find a way -we've got to find a way in this game to help eliminate that play right there, and I don't know how you do it.

GOLDMAN: The NFL says it does.

Mr. RAY ANDERSON (Executive Vice President of Football Operations, NFL): We are just going to enforce the existing rules much more to the letter of the law, so we can protect our players.

GOLDMAN: That's Ray Anderson. He's the NFL's executive vice president of football operations. He spoke on ESPN Radio this morning a few hours before the league announcement: Immediate suspensions, in some cases more than one game, for all dangerous hits, especially helmet to helmet. And suspensions could be in store for the players involved this past Sunday.

Rules to protect defenseless players have been enforced but not consistently. That, says the league, will change. But critics say the game will change for the worse.

Mr. MATT MILLEN (Former NFL Player): Look, this bothers me.

GOLDMAN: Last night on ESPN, former pro linebacker Matt Millen debated the issue with former pro quarterback Steve Young.

Mr. MILLEN: This bothers me because what we're just talking about right here...

Mr. STEVE YOUNG (Former NFL Player): It doesn't matter.

Mr. MILLEN: Yes, it does matter.

Mr. YOUNG: No, it doesn't.

Mr. MILLEN: Because, of course, it matters.

Mr. YOUNG: (Unintelligible) football.

Mr. MILLEN: Because you have people making decisions about the game that don't have any stinking idea of what goes on in the game.

GOLDMAN: The NFL's Ray Anderson says the league will take the criticism and move forward.

Mr. ANDERSON: We're not going to be apologetic. We're not going to be defensive about it. We are going to protect our players and, hopefully, players at the lower levels as well by example.

GOLDMAN: Steve Warren coaches at the high school level. His Abilene Eagles are the Texas Class 5A defending champions. He acknowledges what happens in the NFL trickles down, and he applauds today's announcement. But Warren thinks in this case, the pros can learn from the kids.

Mr. STEVE WARREN (Football Coach, Abilene High School): I can tell you what we do here and what other people do at other high schools, and they'll spend, you know, a lot of time every single day working on the fundamentals of tackling and teaching it the right way. And somewhere along the line, it just gets lost.

GOLDMAN: Ray Anderson wants NFL players to rediscover the fine art of safe tackling. Adjust the target area, he says, with defenders aiming for the chest and lower, not higher. Players are smart, says Anderson. They can adjust. But changing the mindset may be a bigger challenge. The NFL is not about putting on the brakes.

After Pittsburgh's James Harrison put two players down with concussions on Sunday, he was quoted as saying about one of his hits: It geeks you up, especially when you find out the guy is not really hurt. He's just sleeping. He's knocked out, but he's going to be okay.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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