The NFL dropped its big, bad sledgehammer of justice onto the face of James Harrison on Tuesday, finally eschewing the light spanking of fines and stepping up to a paddle-whoopin' of a suspension. It's something of a landmark decision.
I imagine that many people will bemoan the decision as the latest incident in the ongoing sissification of today's NFL. I agree with those who would like to see the sissification curtailed, but from a different angle -- what the league did Tuesday in sidelining Harrison is stopped being a sissy itself.
If it wants change in the game, bold steps are necessary. This might be the first real one it's taken.
The Pittsburgh linebacker's hit on Cleveland quarterback Colt McCoy was brutal and inexcusable. From the beginning of the tackle through the end, Harrison aligned the crown of his helmet to crash into McCoy's face. McCoy never changed the level of his helmet, eliminating that possible explanation. Harrison lined up McCoy's head, and hit it with his own head. His intent is irrelevant — that's what happened. It's happened with James Harrison many times before.
And that's the issue — Harrison's been warned, fined and talked to, and not only has he not changed, but he's made it clear at every opportunity that he's not going to change. He doesn't see anything wrong with what he's doing. He felt like the hit he put on McCoy wasn't even worthy of a penalty, let alone a fine or suspension. Nothing's getting through to him.
If Harrison was coached to play the game a certain way, I get it. That's an issue. I know that a fellow can't change his lifelong style of play immediately.
After six fines, though, it's not unreasonable to expect James Harrison to at least display some understanding that he has to change. Maybe he can't change the way he plays overnight, and that's fine, but we're not talking about overnight anymore. It's been more than two years. We need to see some contrition or at least understanding -- some sign that any little bit of this is getting through.
And if it's the Steelers organization telling him not to change a thing, it needs to be held accountable, too.
A suspension changes things. It's not that fines don't — no one likes to be fined, but in most cases, it's a fine that a player can afford rather comfortably. With a suspension, though, not only is there the financial impact (bye-bye, game check), but you take away something the player loves. You make a guy sit and watch his teammates play while he's at home on the couch, unable to help, unable to contribute, unable to do what he's always done.
The possibility of missed games — a punishment which, before Tuesday, the NFL had not proved it was willing to impose — is 10 times the deterrent of a fine. This is when things get real.
The impact goes beyond the immediate future, too. Harrison has to miss this week's game against the 49ers, a game the Steelers absolutely need if they want a first-round bye in the playoffs. If you're a Steelers defender, how do you feel about having to go into that game without Harrison on your side?
But the bigger factor might be how it affects Harrison's long-term employability. Is James Harrison worth less to the Steelers (or any other team), with the knowledge that any further illegal hits will likely net bigger suspensions? Is James Harrison's value to a team diminished, since his lack of self-control means he could be gone for a game at any time? Maybe even two games. Or a playoff game.
The message, quite clearly, was not getting through. Maybe it will now. And if not, well, there's always a four-game suspension.