NFL Wants To End Dirty Hits, Concussions

The NFL is cracking down on illegal hits. The league plans to suspend players for dangerous and flagrant blows, particularly those involving helmets. The NFL, however, opted to only fine those players involved in last weekend's big hits.

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The National Football League says it is going to start suspending players for dangerous and flagrant hits. Immediately. Or actually starting this weekend. The league decided not to suspend the players responsible for last weekend's devastating tackles, which resulted in concussions and other injuries. Those hits will just cost players fines.

NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman is reporting on the story.

Tom, good morning

TOM GOLDMAN: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Okay. If the hits last weekend inspired this move, why not actually move against the guys who did the hits?

GOLDMAN: Good question. We asked the NFL that and the NFL said it wanted to give fair warning to the players and clubs before the increased level of discipline starts. And the league is sending out that written warning today.

Yesterday's fines were big - $75,000 to Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison, 50,000 each to Atlanta defensive back Dante Robinson and New England defensive back Brandon Meriweather.

But the fact that they weren't suspended after all that tough talk, it was a bit anti-climatic. Robinson and Harrison at least make many millions. The fines won't make a dent. One former player, New England defensive back Rodney Harrison, was fined a lot during his rough and tumble career. He says fines never matter to him. He was suspended once for a helmet-to-helmet hit. He said that got his attention. He felt like he'd let down his teammates by not being there.

INSKEEP: Hmm. So there's a little bit of controversy because the NFL did not go farther. But at the same time, there are people wondering why these suspensions, going forward, have been imposed at all. After all, people will say it's football.

GOLDMAN: It is football. Big hits are and have always been a big part of the game. Im old enough to remember the videos of the NFL's greatest hits set to music. But you know, Steve, you ask most fans and players and theyll say they like big hits, but they also like players to get up from those big hits and play on. And Sunday you saw several players who didnt get up right away. Once they did, they had to come out of the game.

And so far, through six weeks of this season, it's reported that 35 players have been on injury lists, unable to play because of head injuries. And thats an increase of 14 from last year at the same point in this season. And so the NFL is trying to reverse that trend. Critics are asking at what price. Change the way the game is played? Many dont like that prospect.

INSKEEP: Why do you think it's this season that this controversy has come to a head?

GOLDMAN: Well, I think the head injury issue has been on the radar the last few years. Last Sunday was kind of a tipping point, a confluence of cringe-worthy moments. Commissioner Roger Goodell has been made aware of the plight of many retired players, who's later-in-life brain disease has been linked to football head trauma. We are seeing the science advancing and we're seeing more and more the bad effects of head knocks. And the NFL is drawing the line.

And you know, this really is a significant moment for the league. It's forcing change in the nature of the game, a game thats been wildly popular in this country.

INSKEEP: Is it going to force a change not in just the way that players hit each other, but the way they play the entire game? Because this is a game that moves at incredible speed.

GOLDMAN: It may. You're hearing from a ton of players who hate what the NFL is doing. Especially defensive players are asking okay, NFL, how do you want me to play football? Will I have to think in a split second, dont hit too high? And then any hesitation could allow an offensive player to get past a defender. And then suddenly the defender has a new worry: Am I going to lose my job because I momentarily put on the brakes?

INSKEEP: I wonder if there's even an argument to be made that hesitation could cause injuries in and of itself.

GOLDMAN: Thats a really good point, because there's a flow, there's a rhythm to the way things happen. And if there is that slight hesitation, that slight interruption, could be problems.

INSKEEP: NPR's sports correspondent Tom Goldman, never hesitant.

Tom, thanks very much.

GOLDMAN: My pleasure.

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