And Now Back To Sports

It's important that as a country, we move past this election. Enjoy the lighter side of life. There are many pressing stories to tell from the engaging world of professional football. Host Scott Simon talks with ESPN.com's Howard Bryant.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Politics, shmolitics. It's time now for sports.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: You know, I think it's vital that as a country we move past this election. There are so many pressing, important stories to tell from the engaging world of professional football. For instance, this weekend, Senator Lamar Alexander's Tennessee Titans remain undefeated, only the fifth team since 1970 to go 8 and 0. This week, they face President-elect Barack Obama's Chicago Bears, a bit wobbly but still winning.

Joining us from Senator Ted Kennedy's home state Patriots - you know what I mean - is our own great American, Howard Bryant. Howard, thanks for being with us.

HOWARD BRYANT: Alison, is that you? Alison?

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRYANT: Don't you mangle the great Commonwealth of Massachusetts; I'll get you back.

SIMON: It's not a state; it's a commonwealth. I understand.

(Soundbite of laughter)

And, Howard, look, before we get to the teams, the big issue this season in the NFL seems to be all these fines the zebras are handing out for hits.

BRYANT: That's right. Imagine that, being fined for hitting somebody in football. And that is the great story going on right now, especially because the NFL has for years been talking about trying to protect their quarterbacks. And as we all know, in the great macho world of professional football, the quarterbacks are supposed to be the girly men of sport. However, they are the backbone of the game. They are the most glamorous position. They make the most money, and they actually help your team win. As the good folks in Massachusetts, in New England know, without Tom Brady they're just another football team.

SIMON: Yeah. Dallas, too.

BRYANT: And Dallas as well. You've got Troy Polamalu, the great safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers, saying, they're trying to turn football into a sissy sport. And it's a very interesting balance. It's very similar to what's happening in baseball, where you have very few guys throwing inside anymore. And I think one of the reasons is because you - these players make so much money. They are huge, huge financial investments. They're assets now. And if you're a football owner and you're paying a quarterback 40, 50, $60 million over the length of a contract, you don't want to see him on the sidelines. The league doesn't want to see him on the sidelines. You want to see that player on the field.

And so now you've got this sport, which is known for its brutality, trying to ease up at full speed, 300-pound guy racing at a - you know, at a 200-pound player. And it's an interesting balance. And I think that football is going to have - it's going to lighten up one way or the other because it's kind of hard not to hit somebody on a football field.

SIMON: What do you make of the fact that the player's union, which obviously has an investment in the health of players, has objected to the size of these fines because, I guess, they often also have an investment in the investment portfolios of players?

BRYANT: Well, you've got - you're pitting player against player. And it's a very difficult balance because on the one hand, this sport - you're teaching players. You go to a football practice, you're teaching the player, the defending - the defensive player to wrap up and drive to the ground. And that's exactly what the players are being fined for. So it's kind of like, what are we doing here?

But on the other hand, you do understand as well that this is a multibillion-dollar business. And when money rules, you know what's going to happen. The defensive player is going to lose and at some point the - at some point the quality of the game is going to suffer because you have these unnecessary fines and penalties. They affect the outcome of the game.

I think the other thing that's taking place here, too, which is - to me is pretty important, is - it's the technology itself. If you look at rugby or look at soccer or look at some of these other sports where there is physicality, you don't have this great armor. And you know that when you hit someone, you can hurt yourself as well. Football players believe they're invincible. They go headfirst with their helmets. They've got these huge pads. And they honestly believe that when they hit, they're not going to hurt. So I think that when you had - when you go back to the old leather helmets, you might actually have a less violent game.

SIMON: We've got time for two quick questions, Howard. OK. Who's better, the Titans or the New York Giants?

BRYANT: The New York Giants are the best team in football. You look at what they did, beating the Patriots last year, and they seem to have springboarded themselves all the way to being - it's not a great league this year, but they are the best team.

SIMON: And do the Bears have a chance to beat the Tennessee Titans? I mean, Rex Grossman's back.

BRYANT: No great teams in the league, but I like Tennessee. They don't score a lot of points, but they're a very, very good defensive team. And they run the ball.

SIMON: Yeah. OK. And I know where they're going to run it, too. All right, Howard Bryant of ESPN.com, ESPN the magazine, and ESPN the lobbyist. Thanks so much.

BRYANT: Good to talk to you.

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