James Harrison has been in the news a lot lately, and it isn't for the first time. He was fined $100,000 in the 2010 season, and he made his opinion of those fines known. He criticized Goodell and threatened retirement. The recent Men's Journal article is only the most recent of Harrison's loud outbursts.
But poor word choice and ad hominem attacks aside, does Harrison have a point?
He argues that Goodell's rules are softening the league, and that football is about pain and injury and suffering, and having the toughness to power through those setbacks. Harrison himself battled through the end of last season with severe back pain, waiting until after the season to get surgery.
Living in the Pittsburgh area and talking to the locals, I heard a lot of agreement with Harrison's sentiments. A lot of my Facebook friends were joining a group entitled "James Harrison is a clean player. Everyone else is just a [use your imagination here]." Harrison had lots of people on his side, it seemed.
Harrison is certainly one of the hardest-hitting linebackers in the league, and also one of the most successful: in 2008 he won Defensive Player of the Year, and in 2009 he became the highest-paid linebacker in history. But at he said in the recent controversial interview is indefensible. The biggest problem isn't with his personal attacks on Goodell or his bad-talking his teammates. The real problem is Harrison's stance regarding player injury, particularly cranial and spinal injury.
In the Men's Journal article, Harrison admits he would rather be hit in the head than in the legs. True, a concussion usually results in only a one-game absence; a knee injury can end a career. One can assume that Harrison extends this philosophy beyond his own body and onto the bodies he hits. Short-term, one could understand why a football player would rather have (or give) a concussion than a blown ACL.
But in the past year alone, we've seen multiple examples of the trauma that can ensue from unchecked tackles to the head. In college football, Rutgers player Eric LeGrand was injured on an attempted tackle on a special teams play in October. He was paralyzed as a result. Only in the past few weeks was LeGrand able to stand again.
And the consequences of unchecked brain damage as a result of tackles can be traumatic even if not immediate. This past February, Dave Duerson, a safety for the Bears and Giants in the 80s and 90s, committed suicide. Duerson, a member of the Notre Dame family, believed he suffered from crippling depression as a result of chronic traumatic encephalopathy – CTE – a diagnosis seen not infrequently in former pro football players. Duerson shot himself in the chest so that his brain could be spared and donated to the Boston University School of Medicine, which conducts research on CTE. For years after ending his days of repeated brain trauma, Duerson suffered from the consequences of those hits, ultimately succumbing to the brain damage in a most tragic way.
In Harrison's defense, if there is anything positive to take away from his Men's Journal tirade, he does mention that he does want to see the NFL increase safety for its players. His problem with Goodell, however, is that Goodell wants to use different, allegedly ineffective and unjust methods for increasing safety. Harrison, like Goodell, wants to see NFL players better protected, but Goodell's means, Harrison argues, won't work. Harrison wants to see a shorter season and less intense off-season training; Goodell wants to illegalize certain types of hits, hits favored by many players, including James Harrison.
Harrison may have a point that Goodell's plans to decrease brain injury in the NFL won't work and aren't fair to the current players. Harrison's suggested means of repair may actually be the best answer and, unfortunately, the NFL as a business isn't likely to take him up on those plans. But those in power, the league and its commissioner, are actively trying to amend a problem that has become increasingly apparent, the problem of brain damage. Though their route may not be the best, the players cannot afford to waste anymore time trying to figure out the ideal course of action. Until now, many fans have looked upon the NFL as a gladiatorial organization, with expectations that its players sacrifice their bodies, brains, and health for their team's success and their fan's entertainment. Now, that attitude is changing. We are making progress towards protecting our beloved players. And Harrison, though his intentions may be pure, wants to reverse that progress.
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