Hines Ward Puts the Smack Down on Goodell's NFL

Steelers' leader points out the hypocrisy of the NFL's bald-faced PR stunt.

On Wednesday, just two days after the NFL commissioner’s office fined Steelers linebacker James Harrison another 25k for existing as a human being, Hines Ward did what he does best: He stuck up for his teammate.

Ward delivered a slam on commissioner Roger Goodell that would make even Harrison wince. Instead of recycling the same old “it’s a man’s game” arguments, Ward went straight at the NFL for its thinly veiled hypocrisy in handling “player safety.”

"If you were so concerned about the safety, why are you adding two more games?" Ward told reporters. "They don't care about the safety of the game.... They’re hypocrites.”

For those at the back of the class who haven’t been paying attention, the NFL and its owners want to expand the regular season to 18 games when the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires after this season, basically so that they can make more money off of the three advertising pillars of every commercial-binged Sunday: booze, boners and big-ass trucks.

Ward wisely picked up on this contradiction and went for the jugular. As I have pointed out before, the most comprehensive scientific study ever done on the effects of head injuries to football players concluded that it's not the big knockout hits that lead degenerative brain damage, but rather the accumulation of routine hits over time that slowly breaks down brain tissue.

An October 2009 feature article in The New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell explained the real issue that the NFL is not only failing to address but is actually dismissing with two big, fat hyper-extended middle fingers. Gladwell writes:

"This is a crucial point. Much of the attention in the football world in the past few years has been on concussions—on diagnosing, managing and preventing them—and on figuring out how many concussions a player can have before he should call it quits. But a football player’s real issue isn’t simply with repetitive concussive trauma. It is, as the concussion specialist Robert Cantu argues, with repetitive subconcussive trauma. It’s not just the handful of big hits that matter. It’s lots of little hits, too."

More games = more hits to the head. And more cumulative hits to the head, even ordinary, run-of-he-mill collisions, means more players winding up as damaged as Mike Webster or Andre Waters or Chris Henry.

So the NFL is actually distracting fans from the ugly truth with its pearl-clutching campaign against helmet-to-helmet hits. The league is using James Harrison as a scapegoat to cover up the fact that it wants an NFL future that is more dangerous, not safer, for its players. Goodell will get his 18-game season and his 3,000 extra Cialis commercials per year by riding through the gates of public opinion inside the Trojan horse of a vilified Harrison.

It’s a big bait and switch.

Safety Ryan Clark seems to agree:

"It almost seems like the more flags we throw, the more fines we dish out, we can say we're protecting the game," Clark said, explaining the league’s hypocrisy. "Now, we can have 18 games because look how we're protecting [the players]."

Ward also hinted at the moral ambiguity of the NFL whenever the almighty dollar is involved.

“You talk about you don't want players to drink, but our major endorsements are Coors Light. And all you see is beer commercials,” Ward said. “You don't want us to gamble, but then there are [NFL-endorsed lottery scratch-off games].”

While most of the media headlines will focus on Ward’s thoughts on helmet-to-helmet fines, I found that quote most intriguing. Sometimes it’s hard to tell when the beer commercials end and the real game begins these days. The NFL has morphed into one giant fantasy football league where offense is king and defensive players are handcuffed by an ever-changing mishmash of hall-monitor-style rules and regulations.

Fact is, we do not live in the world of Lambert and Tatum and L.T. anymore.

We live in the world of the NFL Red Zone channel. The world where you dare not land on a man with your full body-weight. The world of Peyton’s videogame offense and Brady’s sheep-skin boots.

I wonder what these distinguished gentlemen would think of Brady's precious UGG boots.

We are forever tumbling in the media spin cycle where the 4-7 Minnesota Vikings steal more headlines than the 8-3 Chicago Bears because the purple and gold have more viable fantasy football options and more soft news subplots than the boring Monsters of the Midway. The Vikings are nourishment for the search engines and talking-head nincompoops that rule the day. The Bears are just a boring, good football team.

Ward is right. The NFL is trying to sell you something. In fact, it always has been.

The problem is that now the league is hawking an outright lie. And a dangerous one.  

According to science, the game is as hazardous as ever, no matter how many invoices Goodell sends to Harrison’s mailbox. Football is inherently violent, even on the quiet two-yards runs that happen while a color commentator yawns his way through a promo for “Two and a Half Men.”

So don’t blame the Steelers if they continue to play the game with ferocity and reckless abandon, checkbooks be damned.

"We're going to keep playing the way we always have been playing," said Ward, who makes his living over the middle of the field while missing an ACL in his left knee. "If they fine us, they fine us. It's football.”

It’s football. For now.

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