Play or Get Played: Why the James Harrison Hit Really Doesn't Matter

The NFL is thinking big when it should be thinking small.

 

This past Sunday, Steelers linebacker James Harrison turned Browns wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi into a human laundry pile.

He hit him so hard that the birdies flying around Massaquoi’s head started chirping “Renegade.”

The two players were moving so fast that CBS cameras barely caught the ferocity of the collision on the instant replay.

It was vicious, deplorable, exciting. It was exactly the kind of hit we revere and watch 1,000,000 times on YouTube.

A lot of people have a problem with the hit, which ended up costing Harrison $75,000more than most people make in a year. All of a sudden, 20,000 beat writers, talk show hosts and columnists across America became certified neurologists and televangelical moralists.

If some short-sighted media members had their way,
this is what the New NFL would look like.

The response has been typically brazen, trigger-happy and polarized: a uniquely American sign of the times. Reactions were either comically hawkish (“How Long Until We Start Playing Flag Football?”) or hopelessly pie-in-the-sky (“Players need to be ejected after delivering a big hit”).

Well guess what? None of it matters.

Why did former Steelers center Mike Webster live the later part of his tortured life sleeping in bus terminalshomeless, disoriented and alone?

Why did former Eagles big-hitter Andre Waters commit suicide at age 44, crippled with depression caused by irreparable damage to his brain tissue?

Why was John Mackey, perhaps the best tight end in the history of the game, committed to a nursing home at age 65 after bouts of dementia and rage?

Those heartbreaking stories have very little to do with the human car wrecks that we saw this past weekend. They are actually the byproduct of thousands of unspectacular fender benders: The unavoidable helmet-to-helmet, or even shoulder-to-shoulder collisions that happen during the 130-odd plays in a single game.

The most comprehensive research on head trauma caused during football games concluded, after a five-year study tracking high school football players, that it is the repetitive, cumulative damage of run-of-the-mill collisions that is the real culprit, not the highlight reel knock-outs. Read this excerpt from a New Yorker article about Dr. Robert Cantu, a leading clinical professor of neurosurgery who lead the research:

That’s why, Dr. Cantu says, so many of the ex-players who have been given a diagnosis of C.T.E. [a form of brain damage] were linemen: line play lends itself to lots of little hits. The HITS data suggest that, in an average football season, a lineman could get struck in the head a thousand times, which means that a ten-year NFL veteran, when you bring in his college and high-school playing days, could well have been hit in the head eighteen thousand times: that’s thousands of jarring blows that shake the brain from front to back and side to side, stretching and weakening and tearing the connections among nerve cells, and making the brain increasingly vulnerable to long-term damage. People with C.T.E., Cantu says, “aren’t necessarily people with a high, recognized concussion history. But they are individuals who collided heads on every play—repetitively doing this, year after year, under levels that were tolerable for them to continue to play.”

 

Former linemen have been found to suffer the most from debilitating brain trauma from the build-up of endless little blows. But when was the last time you saw an offensive lineman getting slobber-knocked and laid out on ESPN NFL Primetime's "Jacked Up!" highlights?

The NFL is thinking big when it should be thinking small. Fining players like Harrison may send a hollow message that the league is getting serious about head injuries, but in the end, it’s a distraction from a reality that is even more grim than the grisly shock of seeing Todd Heap’s chin strap coming unhinged and flying 10 feet into the air.

The truth we don’t want to face is that we all love a game that is barbaric in ways we don’t often see. The eye-gouging and finger-stomping that is a common occurrence at the bottom of piles, for instance, is hidden from the cameras. Our heroes routinely spit on one another. In moments of desperation, they even grab each other where the sun shan’t shine (and if you don’t believe it, read Anthony Gargano’s new book).

That is the real NFL, not the one shined up and sold to you by Sprint and Anheuser-Busch, but the one populated by men Mean and Mad.

So please forgive me if I don’t feign horror when James Harrison admits that he is trying to hurt people out there.

Maybe it’s time to be honest with ourselves: America’s new favorite pastime is inherently dangerous, even terminal. It is played not by The Guy Next Door in his rolled-cuff jeans and aw-shucks grin, but rather The Guy Like You and Me, the self-absorbed, pill-popping misanthrope who sexts while wearing tacky flip-flops. And who fails a lot more often than he succeeds.

"Shucks ya'll, I'm just a simple country boy slangin'
the ol' bawl around the yard after a barbecue."

Football is not for the faint of heart or the easily offended, but perhaps in the whirlwind of United Way commercials, PR flacks and softball personality profiles, we were fooled into believing something that was too good to be true: Wholesome Violence for the Whole Family.  

I will revert once again to the master, Mr. Jack Lambert, who in his infinite wisdom said:

“I believe the game is designed to reward the ones who hit the hardest.”

There is nothing the NFL can do short of replacing tackle with two-hand touch and a Nerf ball that is going to change Lambert’s creed.

And so, in conclusion, I will quote another timeless sage, Mr. Omar Little from HBO’s "The Wire":

“I'll do what I can to help y'all. But, the game's out there, and it's play or get played. That simple.”

Until the trenches stop existing, until football stops existing, there will always be a tremendous price to pay. The NFL fining Harrison is not just ridiculous. It's irrelevant.

 

Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Top 10 Things to Do in Pittsburgh in January

Top 10 Things to Do in Pittsburgh in January

This month's best bets in the ’Burgh.
2016 Pittsburghers of the Year: The Pittsburgh Penguins

2016 Pittsburghers of the Year: The Pittsburgh Penguins

The Pittsburgh Penguins' hoisting of Lord Stanley’s Cup in June year speaks to the ability of the team and the organization to persevere, to dig deep when things looked bleak, and to roll up their sleeves and go to work when tough jobs had to be done — traits Pittsburghers have always appreciated.
The Big Guy with the Big Voice

The Big Guy with the Big Voice

After joining the Penguins in mid-season, head coach Mike Sullivan instills the focus needed to win the Stanley Cup.
The TV Series ‘Outsiders’ Finds a Home in Millvale

The TV Series ‘Outsiders’ Finds a Home in Millvale

Go behind the scenes to meet set and production designers and artisans who work magic, transforming neighborhoods into rural Kentucky.
Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


Watch: Preview of Fascinating Rachel Carson Documentary

Watch: Preview of Fascinating Rachel Carson Documentary

Carson, a native of Springdale, is credited with launching the modern environmental movement. She is the subject of a new “American Experience” documentary airing Jan. 24 on PBS.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
G&G Noodle Bar Downtown Will Close

G&G Noodle Bar Downtown Will Close

Its shuttering is the first significant Pittsburgh restaurant closing of 2017.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
The Best 6 Places to Get a Cup of Tea in Pittsburgh

The Best 6 Places to Get a Cup of Tea in Pittsburgh

The quiet rise of Pittsburgh's tea scene gives us a few favorite gems.

Comments


Popularity of The Flats on Carson is a Mystery

Popularity of The Flats on Carson is a Mystery

After Dark visits the South Side bar which attracts big crowds on the weekend — and, on Sunday, was the scene of a well-publicized arrest.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
You Can Hope, but Don't Expect an Easy Steelers' Win in KC

You Can Hope, but Don't Expect an Easy Steelers' Win in KC

Pittsburgh blasted Miami because the Steelers performed as expected against an opponent that was depleted by injury and overwhelmed by its circumstances. But that isn’t likely to happen again.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Tantalizing Textiles for the Table

Tantalizing Textiles for the Table

Check out the chic decor from Pittsburgh-based artist and designer Janice Nelson.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
Scorsese's Silence Proves Worth the Wait (and the Weight)

Scorsese's Silence Proves Worth the Wait (and the Weight)

Reviews of "Silence," "Live by Night" and "Patriot's Day."

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Pittsburgh Romance: How Their Love Survived Long-Distance

Pittsburgh Romance: How Their Love Survived Long-Distance

From coast to coast and continent to continent, these couples showed that absence really does make the heart grow fonder.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
Urban Fit Co. Opening Flagship Shop in Sewickley

Urban Fit Co. Opening Flagship Shop in Sewickley

The locally owned active wear boutique is slated to open in March. Plus, get all the details on Pittsburgh’s new luxury residential real estate firm, Piatt Sotheby’s International Realty.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Pittsburgh Artist’s Work to be Featured at Thiel College

Pittsburgh Artist’s Work to be Featured at Thiel College

Benedict Oddi’s collection “Scouts and Nomads” will be on display in a campus gallery.

Comments

Edit ModuleEdit ModuleShow Tags