For everything I find refining about collegiate football, I have my reservations about the overall sport when it is taken to the professional level.
The Pittsburgh Steelers’ ruthless victory over the Cleveland Browns on Dec. 8 was the perfect example of everything I find detestable about NFL football today.
During the game, which was a tight 7-3 lead by the Steelers in fourth quarter, Pittsburgh’s James Harrison laid down a late helmet-to-helmet hit on Browns quarterback Colt McCoy that caused a concussion.
I was about to let this issue die, but with this week’s developments — in which Harrison was suspended for one game and the Browns’ medical staff came into question for their failure to immediately identify McCoy’s concussion — have shifted my ire towards the professional-level sport as a whole.
While the bulk of the conversation has turned toward Cleveland’s shoddy medical care, the fact that Harrison is being punished for his fifth ruthless hit in the past three seasons is being entirely overshadowed.
The man knocked a player unconscious with an illegal hit clearly after the quarterback had released the ball. But it wasn’t just some random play. It was a drive into the red zone that could have served up his much-hyped team a loss. It was a play that won his team the game.
And after watching McCoy taken off the field, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin didn’t walk away shaking his head in disgust. He had a certain look of satisfaction on his face — a look that, despite his comments of remorse well after the fact, indicates to me he encourages this kind of play.
But when all is said and done, what is the punishment in a league that says they are “really cracking down” on this type of behavior? Harrison gets a one-game suspension and a $125,000 fine, which is about standard for this type of hit. Tomlin and the Steelers walk away with a win.
If the NFL was serious about punishing this type of play, they should have handed Pittsburgh a forfeiture of the game and, given Harrison’s record of dirty hits, suspended the player for the rest of the season.
Instead, they brush it under the rug and then turn the conversation to how teams like the Browns’ need to be able to better identify concussions. That — not preventing nasty hits in the first place — is what will keep players safe, they say.
The NFL — just like Tomlin — has no intention of cleaning up dirty play. They hand out a nominal penalty and wash their hands of it.
Take fighting, for example. When two teams start scuffling and the penalty flags start flying, what’s the typical outcome? Offsetting penalties. And the punishment for offsetting penalties? Replay the down.
That’s no penalty at all for either team. It’s pretending the fight didn’t even happen.
If the NFL was serious about penalizing teams that brawl, they could enforce a 15-yard penalty on the team with the ball and when the other team takes possession, enforce an equal 15-yard penalty.
There are plenty of other examples out there, but if the commissioners truly want to live up to their big words they need to start laying down some big punishments.
And for as excessive as the penalties may seem at times, I think that’s why I respect the NCAA far more than the NFL. At the collegiate level, the organization is still about keeping the sport a sport.
When players or coaches behave in unsportsmanlike fashion, they feel the full brunt of punishment.
And if the NFL wants to keep professional football a sport instead of allowing it to devolve into some gladiator-style battle to the death, they need to start acting similarly.