May I Tackle You? NFL Carefully Takes The Field
LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
It's a big weekend for the National Football League, and we're not talking matchups. Today's games will be about the tackles, the hits and the dangerous play on the field. NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman is here to explain.
And Tom, give us a brief reminder about what's going on here. What is the NFL concerned about?
TOM GOLDMAN: Specifically, hits to the head and neck area of a player who's defenseless at the moment of impact, Liane. The NFL ruled that several of those hits happened last weekend - defensive players hitting offensive players who were focused on catching the football.
Now, these hits resulted in several concussions. Three guys who dished out the hits were fined a total of a $175,000, and the league basically said that's it. We're going to be much more zealous in enforcing the existing rules about dangerous hits. So this isn't about new rules. The NFL says it's about enforcing rules the way it should have in the past.
HANSEN: So what will you be looking for today? What should the fans expect to see?
Mr. GOLDMAN: No one really knows what to expect. I mean, the worst-case scenarios by fans and players are that football will be watered down. One former player said, sarcastically - I think he was being sarcastic. He suggested players come out and play two-handed touch, because there won't be any significant hitting, anyway. Well, of course, the NFL says that's absurd. The pro games still will be physical and exciting. The league says it just wants games where you don't have concussed players lying on the field or getting carted off in a stretcher.
So, will we notice a difference in tackling? Will we see tackles missed because defensive players hesitated, you know, being unsure of what to do? We'll see. There's an expectation that football fields will be littered with officials' yellow flags for all the illegal hits that they're now supposed to call more closely. But the NFL official I spoke to said he hopes there are fewer flags, which would mean that players are learning how to adjust to this new policy.
HANSEN: Will you be focusing on any particular games today?
Mr. GOLDMAN: I think Pittsburgh and Miami is intriguing. It's a good game, anyway, because it has two of the toughest defenses in the league. But it'll also be interesting because Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison has been a focal point of this week's story. He received the biggest fine, $75,000, for laying out two players with concussions in a game last Sunday. Now, he's appealing his fine. He also sounded the rallying cry for players who were confused and concerned by the new policy. He threatened to retire, actually, because he said he wasn't sure he could play the game the way he knew how.
Of course, Liane, Harrison ultimately decided getting a multi-million dollar salary playing a game probably was a pretty good job to hang onto. So he did. And he will play today. And there's a lot of interest in how he'll play. Will he be the same guy who said last weekend he doesn't like to injure opponents, but he's OK with hurting them?
HANSEN: Well, that attitude, I mean, that really reminds us that at its heart, football really is a violent sport. And I assume that's not likely to change.
Mr. GOLDMAN: Probably not. You know, Liane, football can be balletic for those of us who like to watch it - the jumping, the spinning, the graceful athletic moves. But yes, this week the players and the coaches who play it at the highest level reminded us at its basic level football is about violence, and they like it that way.
Many reacted to the new policy by saying don't take away that essence of our game. Don't take away our right to blow up a player, as they like to say. Another thing you hear: We signed up for this. It's our choice to play this violent game. Interestingly, even one of the guys who was concussed last weekend by James Harrison defended Harrison's right to hit him like that. Cleveland's Josh Cribbs said of Harrison, who was a former college teammate of Cribbs: It's Harrison's job to simply knock people out. Liane, one is reminded of a quote by Hall of Fame Coach Steve Owen: "Football was invented by a mean SOB," he said. "And that's the way it's meant to be played."
HANSEN: Tom, are there any expectations that this kind of policy will extend to college football?
GOLDMAN: There's no talk about that at this point, but I think what the NFL sees, Liane, is that it's the standard-bearer. And NFL officials have said this week, yes, we're going to protect our players at our level, and we hope that trickles down to college, high school, peewees.
HANSEN: NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman.
Tom, thanks a lot.
GOLDMAN: You bet.