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The NFL Jumps the Shark

An exaggeration? Sure. But don't think that this change in emphasis won't significantly change the game. SI.Com's Peter King:

We may look back at last weekend as a seminal one in how defense is played in the NFL. That might be an exaggeration, but this is very high on the NFL's fix-it agenda, and don't underestimate what the league will do to protect its image when it feels it's in crisis mode. And for a league with its antennae up about head injuries, concussions and post-career care of injured players, last weekend may just have been the kind of perfect storm that will change the way defensive players approach big hits.

It's not as if there weren't already rules against players who "launch" themselves head first at opponents, seeking to injure rather than attempting only to "hurt" a player and cause a fumble. If the distinction seems lost in the translation, it is simply part of the NFL culture. Trying to hurt someone is fine. Everybody in the league plays hurt at some point, or at several points, during the year. But an effort to actually injure a player -- jeopardizing his health and/or career -- is against the rules. It's a fine line that is really a question of intent rather than technique. And I have yet to see a ref whose off-field employment is as a circus soothsayer or Gypsy palm reader.

The subjective evaluation by a referee on the scene of the play has generally been to protect the receiver on these hits anyway. Now the refs knows that the league will be looking over their shoulders when they judge the legality of these collisions which almost certainly means that there will be little room for error by the defensive player when lining up a receiver for a blow. The quarterbacks are already cocooned by the league, as it is illegal to make helmet-to-helmet contact with the signal caller at any time for any reason. The question can be asked is if the league is headed in that direction when it comes to protecting any of their high-value, high-profile players be they quarterbacks, receivers, running backs, or kick returners.

The three players involved in this past weekend's concussion incidents have been fined for their actions. The Steelers' James Harrison was fined $75,000 because he was a repeat offender, while the others received fines of $50,000. It sounds like a lot until you consider that Harrison just signed a $20 million contract.

For his part, Harrison appears to be seriously thinking about retiring if he doesn't think he can perform effectively under the new regime:

I'm going to sit down and have a serious conversation with my coach tomorrow and see if I can actually play by NFL rules and still be effective," Harrison said. "If not, I may have to give up playing football.

I really truly hope it's something that can be done, but the way that things were being explained to me today and the reasoning for it, I don't feel I can continue to play and be effective and, like I say, not have to worry about injuring someone else or risking injury to myself.

NFL players begin and end their careers with their eyes wide open about injuries. They know full well that on any given Sunday, any given play, their careers can come to a painful end as the result of  being seriously hurt. And if they survive for 5, 10, or 15 years, they know that their post-football life will likely be filled with excruciating pain as the body rebels against the punishment and abuse it received during their playing years getting pounded by opposing players.

This Faustian bargain made between the player and the football gods -- a life of misery in exchange for the wild adulation of fans and the wealth of the pharaohs for  playing a kids' game -- admittedly does not include the prospect of being paralyzed for the rest of their lives. But by walking on the field, the player accepts that risk along with the rest. And while the league is bound by conscience and common decency to try and prevent serious injury, it alters the heart and integrity of the game when it seeks to discourage the kind of aggressive play that is at core of what makes the NFL an extraordinary spectacle.

A concussion -- any head injury -- is serious and should be treated with great caution. The NFL has been trying to change the culture that saw players returning to action before they were completely healed, which may have resulted in additional damage and cognitive problems after the player retired. But the current rules enforcement has seemed more than adequate to deal with the fundamental problem of players deliberately trying to injure an opponent. The question the NFL wants to address -- to the detriment of the game -- is whether players should be penalized for simply playing the game the way it was meant to be played: hard and mean.

The end result will be to take away more of the excitement and controlled aggression for which the game has become noted. And it sends a message to players that is at once confusing and contradictory: play hard but not too hard.