NFL's flip-flop on Ed Reed penalty sends a mixed message

Ravens will be happy to have Reed on Sunday, but what does it say for league's stance on player safety?

The Ravens caught a big break when the NFL overturned Ed Reed's one-game suspension on appeal Tuesday and instead imposed a $50,000 fine for his third violation of the league's player safety rules over the past three seasons.

Reed will be able to practice this week and play in Sunday's game in San Diego, and the Ravens will not be missing a third key starter in the defensive secondary against the pass-happy San Diego Chargers.

So, all's well that ends well, right?

Not necessarily.

Certainly, Ravens fans should be happy that one of the greatest safeties in the history of the sport will be keeping Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers honest on Sunday, especially with star cornerback Lardarius Webb out for the season with a knee injury and young corner Jimmy Smith sidelined indefinitely after groin surgery.

Of course, Reed must be ecstatic, considering he stood to lose more than $400,000 in salary if the suspension had been upheld for the hit he put on Pittsburgh receiver Emmanuel Sanders in the third quarter of Sunday night's victory over the Steelers.

And this might actually be proof that the NFL doesn't have it out for Baltimore, as disciplinary measures announced by the league are rarely reversed so decidedly.

It is also proof, however, that the NFL is still trying to figure out just how far it's willing to go to make the game safer. What started out to be a strong statement from the league at a time when a number of the game's biggest stars are sidelined with concussions turned into another mixed message from a sport that has a long history of putting profit in front of player safety.

Don't misunderstand. Nobody wants to see football's most exciting stars walking off the field in a daze the way Michael Vick did recently, and everybody wants these athletic warriors to be able to enjoy a normal life long after they retire. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the league's owners are sincere in their desire to reduce head injuries and promote the general welfare of the players, but they sometimes have a strange way of showing it.

How else are you supposed to view the attempt in 2011 to lenthen the regular season to 18 games, or the expansion of the Thursday night schedule to 14 weeks this year?

The decision to get tough with Reed on the day after a highly rated, nationally televised game bore the scent of a public relations ploy in the wake of so many high-profile injuries over the past few weeks. The fact that it was overturned after another day of reflection and review only reinforces the notion that the league acted hastily and arbitrarily.

NFL arbiter Ted Cottrell ruled that Reed's hit on Sanders, when weighed along with two previous violations of the helmet-contact rules — the first a 2010 hit on Saints quarterback Drew Brees and the second a nasty hit on Patriots receiver Deion Branch earlier this season — was "egregious" and did "warrant significant discipline," but not a suspension.

That decision may be correct on the merits. It might even prove that the NFL appeals process isn't just a star chamber with like-thinking league officials acting as judge and jury. But if the intent of the original penalty was to show that the league isn't going to put up with dangerous head hits anymore, then it should have been upheld.

Ravens management stood up for Reed and made the argument both publicly and during the appeals hearing that he has never been a cheap-shot artist and that he is a player who respects the game and cares about the welfare of his teammates and opponents. That may be true, but this isn't about whether Reed is a good guy or a bad guy.

There was a time not so long ago when the kind of hits we're talking about were celebrated as the truest expression of great defensive football. SportsCenter and the other highlight shows used to glorify them with special montages of the plays in which ball carriers got "jacked up." Great safeties such as Reed and Bernard Pollard built their reputations by leveling receivers and quarterbacks.

Now, the NFL has to decide whether it really wants to change that culture or just make a show of disapproving of it.

That jury is still out.

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.

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