The League

Michael Oriard
Author

Michael Oriard

An English professor at Oregon State University and the author of several books on football, including Brand NFL Making and Selling America's Favorite Sport and The End of Autumn Reflections on My Life in Football

Hits worse than fights

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Johnson-Finnegan was not exactly Johnson-Jeffries in the Fight of the Century, but it was ugly, and it wasn't football, and it wasn't the NFL as the NFL wants to be seen. The $25,000 fines that Roger Goodell levied on both combatants seem about right. If what I read is true -- that Finnegan planned his cheap shot on Johnson -- then he might be judged more guilty. But parsing these acts too finely would quickly get messy, and Goodell got it right in levying the same $25,000 that he fined Richard Seymour for smacking Ben Roethlisberger last week -- a half or a third of what he fined James Harrison, Brandon Meriweather, and Dunta Robinson for helmet-to-helmet hits earlier this season.

Again if what I read about Finnegan's premeditation is true, his play was "dirtier" than any of the helmet-to-helmet blows that were fined more heavily. Of the three helmet-to-helmet hits, only Meriweather's seemed fully intentional. But due to present circumstances, whether a punch or a head slap is more intentional or less legal than a helmet-to-helmet hit is beside the point. At stake in an impulsive punch, or even a full-blown brawl, is the rule against unsportsmanlike conduct. At stake in a helmet-to-helmet hit is the possibility of long-term brain damage (to both players) and, potentially, the future of football itself. No one understands better than Roger Goodell that, unless football can be made demonstrably safer, the NFL might not survive, at least as the reigning king of American sports. How much safer it can be, and still be football, is the great uncertainty. If Goodell's problem was merely to punish cheap-shot artists and players who lose their tempers, the solution would be simple. It's not.

Brawls were a major problem in football in the 1890s, but they've been incidental to the game for more than a century, and they're not a significant problem today. I assume that the $25,000 fines for Johnson, Finnegan, and Seymour are roughly consistent with the going rate for such actions in recent decades. In contrast, we've only begun to understand the potential consequences of head blows, and what we do know is so horrifying that levying large fines is literally the least that the NFL can do. On Sunday Night Football at few weeks ago, Rodney Harrison said that, when he was running up tens of thousands in fines each year, the money meant nothing to him but the threat of suspension got his attention. If that's what it takes, Goodell should seriously consider it, but for threats to players' well-being and to the game itself, not for unsportsmanlike conduct.

By Michael Oriard  |  November 30, 2010; 12:25 AM ET  | Category:  Houston Texans , NFL Rules , Roger Goodell , Tennessee Titans Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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