Dear Mr. Goodell,
I wrote to you last fall and enclosed $5 in the letter. $4 was to help pay James Harrison's fine, and the fifth dollar was to help pay Dunta Robinson's. At the time I noted that I didn't disagree with the league trying to reduce head injuries—I only disagreed with how you were going about it. These measures appeared to be motivated by a desire to preserve the league's public image combined with a desire to reduce the threat of successful litigation against the league down the road.
The health and well-being of the players seemed to be an afterthought, as is witnessed by the attempt the league made to increase the number of games in a season. It also seemed that the referees weren't entirely sure in their own minds what was or wasn't a legal hit. The players certainly weren't sure.
In the ensuing year I've watched the results. It seems as if certain sorts of head hits have been reduced. Any reduction in head hits has to be a good thing. But if you were honest you would have to admit that the measures you have taken are just window dressing, because only certain players are protected.
In the meantime, the referees don't seem to be any more certain about what should be penalized than they were last year. In one game a few weeks ago, Ravens @ Steelers, several helmet-to-helmet hits were quite obvious.
The first hit came early in the game when Ray Lewis lowered his helmet and drove the crown of it right into the back of Hines Ward's head as he caught a ball. At that point he was a defenseless receiver. Ward was clearly at least lightly concussed, as he vomited and was quite dazed-looking when he got up. Lewis was not penalized for the hit, although he was fined later in the week. The play was even reviewed, although I gather that the officials can't call a penalty as part of a review. But why was the hit not penalized in the first place? I'm sure the Steelers would have preferred the 15 yards and first down to the hit on Ray Lewis' pocket. In a close game that was decided literally in the last seconds, that was a huge non-penalty. Ward was unable (or not allowed) to come back into the game.
Later in the game Ryan Clark was penalized and fined for a helmet-to-helmet hit on TE Ed Dickson. Clark appeared to be aiming for Dickson's midsection, but Dickson lowered his head for the impact and Clark hit the base of his helmet. Dickson apparently suffered no ill effects from the hit, other than losing the ball. The Ravens were quite happy to take the 15 yards and first down, and I'm sure that Clark being fined was just icing on the cake.
During the 4th quarter Antonio Brown caught a ball and turned to run when Jameel McClain smacked right into his head. I presume that since he had taken a step he was no longer "defenseless." No flag, no penalty, no fine.
There were a lot of other head hits in this game, however, and they were not flagged or fined either, despite the fact that some of them were at least as violent as James Harrison's hit on Colt McCoy last week. This is because they were 'legal' hits. They were on (or by) the running backs, the linemen, and occasionally the secondary. Knowing what we know now about head injuries, these hits, large and small, are part of what is causing the brain trauma that will come back to haunt many of the players in later years. Some of the hits are barely noticeable, although that doesn't mean that they aren't causing damage. Some of them are more dramatic, like the hit James Harrison took in the Houston game when he was speared in the side of the head by an offensive lineman. You may recall that his orbital bone was broken. For reasons I can't begin to comprehend, the league apparently felt that the hit was not worthy of either a penalty or a fine.
This is not only going to come back to haunt the players—it will come back to haunt the NFL. When a running back or a defensive end sues the league in 10 or 15 years, what is the league's defense going to be? The league is clearly aware that head hits are dangerous, and I don't see that you or your successor will have a leg to stand on when you are accused of protecting the marquee players but not the rest.
And although it seems that no helmet can completely protect the brain from trauma, it is known that there are safer helmets than the ones that the NFL mandates. Apparently, though, the league is too busy making sure that everyone's shoes are the correct color to pay any attention to equipment that could possibly help reduce brain trauma. I can't imagine why your lawyers haven't insisted that the change be made, just so there is at least a perception that you are doing something for all players, regardless of position. The money you're getting from Riddell may look like small potatoes when some of the judgments start coming down from the courts.
Eliminating all head hits from the game is next to impossible. That much is obvious. But the league seems to be prepared to insist that all such hits be eliminated on quarterbacks and 'defenseless' receivers. Which brings up a couple of interesting points.
At what point does a receiver cease to be defenseless and become fair game? He is apparently on his own once he's caught the ball and begins to run. So what, precisely, is he going to do to protect himself?
On the other hand, when a quarterback leaves the pocket, tucks the ball, and becomes a runner, how is this different than a receiver running with the ball? The quarterback has the option to slide, unlike a receiver.
Until recently, a quarterback who left the pocket and ran with the ball was considered to have abandoned the protection afforded him by the pocket. That is apparently what James Harrison believed. But to judge from his suspension, the league now deems the quarterback to be protected no matter what he is doing. At least some quarterbacks, that is.
The officials still seem to be confused on this point. If they aren't one can only conclude that it matters more what your name is than what actually happened on the field. Tom Brady called for a penalty on a defensive player for an arm-to-the-helmet hit that didn't actually occur. (The official did in fact levy the penalty, incorrectly.) Ben Roethlisberger's nose was broken by a defensive player last December; there was no penalty. The last time I checked, a person's nose is on their head, although not much of Ben's was left after that hit. The doctor said it looked like "cornflakes."
The NFL has developed a couple of major image problems as a result of all of this. First, the league appears to have no interest in actually making the game safer, despite the fact that this is not only the right thing to do but the path dictated by self-interest. Second, the officials are either not entirely certain of the new rules themselves, or else they are applying them selectively. There is a solution that will deal with both problems.
If you want everyone to know you are serious about minimizing the brain trauma sustained in football games, then, as Nike would say, Just Do It. Make any head hit on anyone a penalty. The rules would be simple. The penalty is on the player that initiated, whether offensive or defensive. There wouldn't be any difficulty about the officiating, except for the occasional judgment call as to whether the offensive player launched himself at the defensive player or vice versa. You would need to put more refs on the field, and particularly at first games would probably take six or seven hours, but that would solve the problem.
Of course, it would also change the game a good deal, and would likely give offenses an even greater advantage than they already have. Maybe there is some other advantage the offense currently has that can be removed, like the pass interference penalty. But whatever you do, you're going to have to dispense with the caste system if you want to survive the deluge of litigation you're going to be facing in the very near future. Making a poster child out of James Harrison is not going to take care of the underlying problem.
Personally, I think that James Harrison's suspension was unjustified, but I've come to understand in the past couple of years that one can't look for impartial justice from the NFL.
This letter is being sent to the league office. If I could I would offer an hour of my time to offset the suspension, but that would do about as much good as the dollar did last year.