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Inexplicably Explicable Suspensions

James Harrison is an extremely scary person. This is necessary for his job. It makes him one of the best in the world at what he does. Fear, specifically the fear of pain, is an important part of football. Harrison has delivered an unquantifiable amount of pain to opponents in his career. He has a spectacular reputation as one of the NFL’s greatest purveyors of pain. Because he is so good at threatening and delivering pain to others, he gets paid an awful lot of money.

This is the problem. Harrison has earned his job by delivering the very pain that he is now being told he is no longer allowed to deliver.

There was a time when it would have been said of James Harrison that he plays the game the “right way.” Now it is said of him that he plays the game “on the edge.” On the edge of what is considered fair and not dirty.

If Harrison didn’t always play “on the edge” he would be of much less value to his team – and he knows that – so he plays with unbridled energy and ferocity. For players who are on the field to do what he is on the field to do, unbridled energy and ferocity is part of the job description. Sometimes this means he does does things he shouldn’t do. He hits people late, he hits them in the head. He violates an ever-evolving set of rules that intend to make safe a sport where 250 pound men collide with one another at extreme speed. If that sounds ridiculous, it’s because it is ridiculous. Football’s inherent natures are of danger and risk. Sometimes mistakes are made and people are injured. Such a mistake was made Thursday night, and James Harrison was the wrong person to make that mistake. He’ll pay for that mistake by being the first player to be suspended by Roger Goodell for hitting an opposing player.

I can forgive Harrison if he finds this suspension laughable, because I do too. Especially when you realize how rare it is to earn a suspension in the NFL.

Here is the list of players suspended by Roger Goodell

  • [EDIT] Albert Haynesworth, suspended five games (weeks 5 through 10)
  • Pacman Jones, suspended entire 2007 season and first four games of 2008 season
  • Chris Henry, suspended the first eight games of 2007
  • Tank Johnson, suspended the first eight games of 2007
  • Mike Vick, suspended the first two games of 2009
  • Donte Stallworth, suspended the entire 2009 season
  • Ben Roethlisberger, suspended the first four games of 2010
  • [EDIT] Cedric Benson, suspended week 8 of 2011
  • Ndamukong Suh, suspended weeks 13 and 14 of 2011
  • James Harrison, suspended week 14 of 2011

To the best of my knowledge, that’s it. All of these players – except for Haynesworth and Suh – were suspended for some combination of assault, manslaughter, dogfighting, or drugs. Haynesworth stomped on a man’s face after a play had ended, Suh a man’s arm. Harrison unintentionally made contact with a quarterback’s head. What we have here is the commissioner suspending a player for something that happened before the whistle. This is unprecedented.

To be sure, contact with a quarterback’s head is very illegal in the NFL and undoubtedly warranted some sort of supplementary discipline. You know, like how every other player who makes illegal contact with a quarterback’s head is disciplined, with a fine. The same way Harrison has been disciplined numerous times in the past. But to take Harrison off the field for a game delivers a message not only to the player but to his coaches and front office personnel. Goodell has indirectly warned Mike Tomlin to get a hold of his player lest he be suspended again, possibly for an even longer period of time.

Perhaps this time Goodell had had enough and decided that another dent in the pocketbook of the man who “wouldn’t piss on him if he was on fire” wouldn’t be enough to truly teach him a lesson. Although I’m at a loss for what lesson Goodell would want Harrison to learn. Does the commissioner believe Harrison intentionally delivered that blow to Colt McCoy’s head? Does he really think that Harrison is so stupid a man that he doesn’t grasp the concept of “don’t hit the quarterback or anybody else in the head with your helmet” that he meant to headbutt the Cleveland quarterback?

Whatever the case, Goodell is going to be expected to hold to this standard of discipline from this day forth. A hit to the head of a quarterback by a repeat offender warrants a one-game suspension. There can be no other way. Goodell is already viewed by many as a bit of a cowboy with regards to how he chooses to dole out fines and suspensions, the general perception being that he makes it up as he goes along because there is zero transparency when it comes to the process. The NHL used to have this problem (and to an extent still does) but now when a player is fined or suspended for an egregious play, the disciplinary czar (who incidentally is NOT the commissioner) produces an instructional video designed to give clarity to his decision. He explains why the hit was illegal, specifies what rule or rules were broken, and uses similar incidents as precedent. It’s not perfect, but at least it helps to educate the players, coaches, and fans as to why it’s happening. Goodell provides nothing of the sort and appears to have no intention to ever do so, and I am stunned the NFLPA signed a collective bargaining agreement that didn’t address this in some way.

You could ask dozens of  knowledgeable people how they feel about Harrison’s suspension and get a number of different answers. Some expected it, some never thought it was possible, some think it’s the right thing, some think it’s way over the line. It’s a huge problem when you have players, coaches, and fans who don’t understand how an action evolves from a penalty to fine-able to suspend-able. There needs to be a rubric laid out by the commissioner’s office detailing exactly what actions will result in what discipline. The officials have a rulebook to reference for actions on the field, Goodell should have a rulebook for how he governs off the field. And if he isn’t willing to do that, he should relinquish his power to discipline the players. Anything less is unfair to us all.

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