Policing Their Sport

By Joe Starkey
Updated: October 21, 2010

PITTSBURGH — We could delve into the James Harrison situation, but that would require taking his threat to retire seriously.

Like he’s going to kiss the rest of that $51 million contract goodbye and settle down in Florida for endless rounds of golf and early bird specials (“Could I have the human skull on a platter, please?”).

Harrison needs to calm down, pay his fine and play football. Spare us the drama. People have real problems, and most don’t make $51 million.

Let’s look at the larger picture, and let’s get one thing straight: This past NFL weekend was no more violent than any other. Some brutally sensational hits made it look that way, and now everybody’s freaking out, blaming the league for being too soft or too hard on hitters.

Forget about the league. Focus on the players. They’re not helpless.

They are, in fact, empowered to act on the core issues here. Namely, how they want their game to be policed and their short- and long-term health, especially in regard to brain injuries.

Instead of focusing on the size of the next NFL-imposed fine, or whether hits such as Harrison’s were “legal,” I’m way more interested in questions such as these:

• With the current collective bargaining agreement set to expire, will NFL players submit to blood testing for human-growth hormone in the next one?

I ask, because I don’t believe it’s the sensational hits that threaten players’ health so much as the mass and force behind the hundreds of mundane hits that happen every game — and if you believe mass and force have increased over the years because players are growing bigger and stronger naturally, you’re nuttier than Al Davis.

Should players submit to blood testing, which the league wants, and aggressively seek ways for drug testers to catch up to drug creators, then I’ll believe they are serious about making their long-term health a priority.

If not, let them live with the consequences. Let them live with their chemically enhanced collisions.

• In forming the new CBA, will players fight for the kind of game they want?

I ask, because the general player response to the weekend’s big hits was that only one — New England’s Brandon Meriweather on Baltimore’s Todd Heap — was egregious.

With the CBA expiring, this would appear to be the perfect time to battle the league on basic issues such as what constitutes a legal tackle. And we’ll see how hard players work against the unconscionable, league-initiated prospect of an 18-game schedule, even if it means more money for the players.

• Will players learn to respect each other more?

I ask, because I look at the Meriweather hit and say: “There’s a guy with no respect for the welfare of a fellow union member.”

The union should be the entity that comes down hardest on Meriweather. How about a little peer pressure?

Roger Goodell didn’t make that hit. Meriweather did.

• Will the union see to it that their charges are educated on the seriousness of brain injuries?

I ask, because of Harrison’s ignorant remarks in the wake of his other concussion-causing hit — a perfectly legal one on Josh Cribbs — and because of what happened with Ben Roethlisberger leading into last years’ game at Baltimore.

When Harrison was asked about Cribbs, he said: “You hate to see anyone down like that, but then you realize he just went to sleep for a little bit and came out of it, and he’s going to be OK.”

Actually, if Cribbs “went to sleep for a little bit,” he might not be OK. It means he was knocked out, and if you’ve seen the scientific research of late, football-related head trauma is becoming linked with all kinds of severe long-term problems, up to and including Lou Gehrig’s disease and death.

As for Roethlisberger, you remember Hines Ward saying teammates were confused as to why their quarterback was a late scratch for the Baltimore game when he had practiced with the team late in the week.

Roethlisberger was suffering from exercise-induced headaches and followed doctor’s instructions by reporting them. Players who do that need to be respected, not ostracized or criticized.

The player is the only person who can report such symptoms. It’s on him. And the players are the only people who can truly police their sport.

It’s on them.