On the NFL’s newest big problem

Right-wing pundit Bill O’Reilly last week on ABC’s ”The View”: “Muslims killed us on 9/11.”

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison, one day after concussing two Cleveland Browns wide receivers: “I try to hurt people.”

Both of these comments pissed people off (obviously the former hit a few more nerves than the latter — I’m not attempting to compare them), but what they have in common is that neither was incorrect.

O’Reilly was wrong because he spoke too broadly in an obvious attempt to stoke an already raging fire regarding a proposed Muslim community center near ground zero. But he was factually correct.

Harrison was too.

It’s hard to comprehend in a society that has become saturated with coddling, but the purpose of defensive players in the sport of football is to inflict harm on offensive players. Period. And now the sports world — and the world in general; the NFL’s hits to the head issue was a part of the regular CNN rotation on Tuesday — is left wondering what’s right and what’s wrong when it comes to violent plays in an inherently violent sport.

Following a particularly savage Week 6, the league has vowed to crack down harder on helmet-to-helmet contact. Three offenders were fined heavily on Tuesday. Pittsburgh’s Harrison, New England’s Brandon Meriweather and Atlanta’s Dunta Robinson were charged a combined $175,000.

And while some are wondering why all three players avoided suspensions, I’d argue that because the changes are reactionary, the punishments actually fit the crimes. The aforementioned trio can’t be made an example of because, technically, they are no guiltier than a player who knocked a running back out with a head shot in, say, Week 3.

(It’s also important to note that these guys were fined a tremendous chunk of their salaries, at least compared to past fines for similar offences. I don’t care how much money these guys make, $50,000 or $75,000 is a steep price to pay.)

From now on, though, there’ll be no excuses; no pleading ignorance. The next player to hit a guy like Meriweather hit Todd Heap Sunday will almost surely be suspended.

Things will start to get interesting now.

The NFL has to be extremely careful here, because it doesn’t want to completely change the most popular sport in North America, and it also doesn’t want to turn a blind eye to an issue that could one day spark the kind of incident that would give the game a black eye.

There are those who will argue that this initiative is knee-jerk reacting epitomized. After all, the NFL has always been a fast-paced, violent game, and those who choose to play understand they run the risk of suffering a debilitating injury.

So why change things now, after all these years?

Some will tell you that the players are stronger and faster than ever, but I find it hard to believe that things have changed that much in the past 10 or 20 years. Yes, pro athletes are significantly more dangerous than they were half a century ago, but the difference between the Lawrence Taylor era and the James Harrison era can’t be big enough to bring about these kinds of problems.

But what we’re learning about concussions and their long-term effects has changed drastically, and that’s the difference. Retired NFL players generally lead painful lives. They generally die before the rest of us. They generally don’t function like healthy and happy human beings.

Head injuries have surpassed steroids to become the single biggest problem in North American professional sports. That’s why things need to change, and hockey and football — this country’s two most dangerous mainstream sports — continue to take radical measures to solve the dilemma.

Yet for every sports fan who will admit that those measures are a necessary sacrifice for the greater good of the game there’s one who will tell you that the fabric of the sport is being torn apart.

This guy will tell you that violent collisions are inevitable in football, and he’s right. He’ll also tell you that cracking down on said collisions will make the sport less manly, less enticing. And although that’s a subjective point, it’s ignorant.

But the National Football League doesn’t want to alienate this guy. That’s because this is often the guy who spends 75 per cent of his disposable income on season tickets and merchandise.

Yes, this is political.

The NFL is a business; one that relies on prehistoric slack-jawed yokels – you know, the same kind of people who will vote for Christine O’Donnell — who watch football for the hits in the same way that their cousins and wives (not necessarily separate people) watch NASCAR for the accidents.

The league is walking a fine line because it fears angering these types and losing their support, but it also hears the chorus of criticism surrounding the head injuries that are suddenly dominating the game. How do you keep everyone happy?

It’s unbelievably difficult to be “sort of violent.” Sometimes, there just isn’t a middle ground.

And fortunately for the sake of player safety, and for all of those fans who watch football for its underestimated grace (that’s right, grace), it looks like we’re finally realizing that it’s time for a game-changing modification. The old way was fun while it lasted, but just because something felt right in the 1969 doesn’t make it right in 2010.

This isn’t selling out. This isn’t being wimpy or cowardly. This is being progressive.

The NFL is at a crossroads. No one knows if there will be football in 2011, and now the league is suddenly face-to-face with a change that could either revolutionize the game or break the game, depending on who you ask. There are dozens of conflicting arguments, many of which are valid, and no one knows exactly what the hell to do. What’s right? What’s wrong? Are we overreacting or still underreacting?

Sounds a lot like the state of America, doesn’t it? O’Reilly’s edgy comments on the Muslim community center were enough to prompt Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar to walk off set. No one seems to agree on what’s right, what’s wrong, and where things should go in the future. And although that’s always been the case to a degree, it seems as though things haven’t been this intense in most of our lifetimes.  

Which has me wondering: Are sports a distraction from life — as they’re supposed to be — or are they simply a microcosm of it?