James Harrison is wrong about many things, but not everything

Steelers linebacker James Harrison -- who was a Raven once for about five minutes -- caused a bit of a stir this week when a profile of him in Men's Journal, written by a highly-respected writer named Paul Solotaroff, quoted him as saying a bunch of impolite things about Commissioner Roger Goodell, fellow Steelers Ben Roethlisberger and Rashad Mendenhall, and linebackers Brian Cushing and Clay Mathews Jr.

This really shouldn't have come as any big surprise, considering Harrison is a little bit loco, and pretty much always has been. He is, after all, the same person who allegedly shot a BB-gun in anger at one of his high school football coaches. Harrison is a throwback in the sense that if the NFL didn't exist, he'd either have tried to be a boxer like Sonny Liston, or a guy who collected debt for the mob and broke thumbs to those who didn't pay up. (He might even have tried both, the way Liston did. It's probably fair to say if you pose for a magazine shoot holding two giant handguns, you're not exactly envisioning yourself in a desk job.) He's been successful in the brutal and violent game of professional football because he's angry, aggressive and excels at violence. You don't have to have Harrison's disposition to be a good NFL linebacker, but it certainly doesn't hurt.


Harrison's comments about Goodell -- that he wouldn't urinate on the man if he was on fire, and that he believes the commissioner is a crook, a puppet and a racist -- have been widely condemned, and with good reason. Even in a lockout, it's probably not wise to say such things about your boss. The Steelers backed away from Harrison, and so did many of his teammates. Eventually, Harrison even issued a non-apology apology. It would be somewhat ridiculous, though, if Goodell got to go back and retroactively punish Harrison for what he said, considering Harrison isn't bound by a collective bargaining agreement at the moment, but the NFL might figure out a way to do it anyway. Goodell is big on decorum, if not logic.

Lost, however, in all Harrison's growling and grumbling is a very legitimate gripe about the way the NFL has decided to officiate its defensive players, which happens is the main thrust behind Harrison's animus toward the commissioner.

Slow motion replays and high definition cameras have been wonderful for the NFL fan sitting at home on the couch watching games on the big screen, but they've also distorted and blurred our idea of what's actually possible in terms of decision making by an athlete while he's playing at full speed. Harrison was fined twice for violent hits he made in a game against the Cleveland Browns last year, a game that helped earn him the label as a headhunter. But in both instances -- a hit on Joshua Cribbs and another on Muhammed Massaquoi -- Harrison has a legitimate complaint. And he tried to voice it in a meeting with Goodell, NFL executive vice president Ray Anderson, and director of football operations Merton Hanks.

"What I tried to explain to Goodell, but he was too stupid to understand, is that dudes crouch when you go to hit them," Harrison told Men's Journal. "With Massaquoi, my target area was his waist and chest, but he lowered himself at the last possible second and I couldn't adjust to his adjustment. But Goodell, who's a devil, ain't hearing that. Where's the damn discretion, the common sense?"

It's hard to understand just how fast the game moves if you've never played football. There is no physical way to adjust on the fly to every flinch and crouch a receiver makes when he's about to be hit. Two years ago in the playoffs, Ray Lewis had a very similar collision with Colts wide receiver Austin Collie. The Ravens linebacker led with his shoulder, Collie curled up in anticipation of the blow, and their helmets collided. Lewis was essentially fined $5,000 because Collie cringed as Lewis was flying toward him, and because Peyton Manning led him into danger.

Colt McCoy did the same thing to Massaquoi. If you duck your head into the path of a freight train at the last second, it's a little unfair to blame the freight train. And Cribbs cut back against the flow of pursuit without turning his head, as big no-no as there is for an offensive player. But the way the NFL decided to hand out fines last year, it's obvious they're watching slow-motion replays and demanding athletes make physical adjustments that are humanly impossible with the speed of the modern game.

It's one thing to protect quarterbacks from any helmet-to-helmet contact, accidental or otherwise. They're forced to stand there, practically defenseless, while enormous defenders launch themselves at them. But assigning blame to players like Harrison or Lewis -- who don't lead with their head, but explode through ball carriers with their upper body -- when a receiver is running directly at them and ducks at the last second defies logic. If officials on the field had no problem with Harrison's tackles in real time (he wasn't flagged for either hit in the Brows game), how can the league go back and and essentially say "Well, at the last second, James, you should have made yet another adjustment to avoid helmet-to-helmet contact." 

Concussions are, obviously, a serious issue, and the NFL has to figure a way to curtail them. But some studies suggest it's repetitive blows to the head, the hits that look innocuous and might even occur in practice, that actually do the most damage to the brain, not rare instances of high-speed blunt trauma. But it's clear the NFL cares less about this than they do the bad public relations. Otherwise, they wouldn't have tried to expand the schedule to 18 games during labor negotiations. The NFL is great at PR, and for a brief time, they managed to turn a bunch of media people into the equivalent of Maude Flanders so they could wail "What about the children?" But pretending defenders can simply choose to avoid those kind of hits reveals the real limitations much of the media has in understanding football. And how it's evolved.

There will always be risks involved in playing football. And there will always be scary, somewhat violent guys like James Harrison. He's the worst kind of spokesman for this issue, in many respects. He's gruff, crude and not particularly patient when it comes to making his case. He's the last guy NFL defenders would probably like to have as the public face to advocate their side, but that doesn't mean Harrison is wrong. At least about hard hits.