“Violently or Unnecessarily”: James Harrison and the NFL’s Rough Justice

Tom Scocca: Wow, James Harrison is a crybaby . The NFL laid a feelings-to-feelings hit on him and now he wants to quit.

Josh Levin: Harrison’s hit on Josh Cribbs was legal. The hit on Mohamed Massaquoi was not. I don’t know what he’s whining about.

TS: Yeah, it wasn’t debatable. Also, you know, if you want to be a Bad Man, then pay your fine and move on.

JL: He wants to be a bad man, but the NFL made him a sad man.

I found this in a 1978 Sports Illustrated article :

Before he retired eight years ago, Dr. Eric Walker, the president of Penn State, made a plea in the nature of a prediction to football Coach Joe Paterno, who is widely respected for his honorable approach to the game. Dr. Walker was one of Paterno’s champions, and one of football’s. But like Paterno, he was not blind to its failings. He said, “Joe, if football doesn’t do something about the injuries, soccer will be our national sport in 10 years.”

Yet football (and Joe Paterno!) carry on. Joe Paterno’s continued existence is perhaps more surprising.

TS: The rules seem totally addled. There was a penalty in the Jets game where there was no head-to-head contact, just a defensive back laying a hard hit on a receiver who was catching a pass on the sideline.

JL: Yes, I saw that … totally clean hit.

TS: It seems very wrongheaded to me that a hit like that would be illegal. The receiver is “defenseless” because he is concentrating on trying to catch the ball, but it is the defender’s job to keep the receiver from catching the ball.

At least the quarterback’s magical protection-shield goes into effect when the ball-and the game action-goes away from him. Ditto the punter.

JL:  According to the NFL Rulebook:

If a player uses any part of his helmet (including the top/crown and forehead/”hairline” parts) or facemask to butt, spear, or ram an opponent violently or unnecessarily. Although such violent or unnecessary use of the helmet and facemask is impermissible against any opponent, game officials will give special attention in administering this rule to protecting those players who are in virtually defenseless postures, including but not limited to:

(1) Forcibly hitting the defenseless player’s head, neck, or face with the helmet or facemask, regardless of whether the defensive player also uses his arms to tackle the defenseless player by encircling or grasping him; or

(2) Lowering the head and violently or unnecessarily making forcible contact with the “hairline” or forehead part of the helmet against any part of the defenseless player’s body

TS: There’s this whole dance between subjective and objective standards here. “Unnecessary.” “Forcible.” “Violent.”

JL: So, the part that’s most relevant to this weekend’s helmet-to-helmet hootenanny is Rule 12, Section 2, Article 8. Which the NFL has helpfully put in a red font in the 2010 rulebook.

TS: That’s cool. Did they put the replay challenge rules in Comic Sans?

JL: Article 8 begins: “There shall be no unnecessary roughness.” Did Pete Rozelle carry Article 8 down from Mount Encephalopathy?

TS: The bit about the “hairline” seems like something from Leviticus.

JL: So, the NFL has defined unnecessary roughness as any act that is unnecessary?

TS: Yes. But unnecessary to what end? Setting aside all humane considerations, looking purely at the goal of scoring more points in a football game, it is better to hit a guy so hard he goes out cold, because then he will probably fumble the ball.

JL: I guess the distinction the NFL is trying to make is between the amount of roughness that’s necessary to separate a receiver from the ball and the amount of roughness that knocks the receiver out cold. A lot of the time, there is no difference between those two roughness categories.

TS: Right.

JL: That seems like what James Harrison is complaining about when he says that he doesn’t know how to play football anymore.

TS: And if James Harrison were that Jets defensive back, he would have a case. Unfortunately, James Harrison clobbered that receiver helmet-to-helmet. That’s not a namby-pamby subjective call by the ref, any more than a facemask or a horse-collar tackle is.

JL: Yeah, Harrison’s hit was clearly illegal based on the rulebook definition:

“Launching” (springing forward and upward) into a defenseless player, or otherwise striking him in a way that causes the defensive player’s helmet or facemask to forcibly strike the defenseless player’s head, neck, or face-even if the initial contact of the defender’s helmet or facemask is lower than the defenseless player’s neck.

TS: Exactly. James Harrison’s job is to tackle people in the NFL. There are some basic technical rules about how you do that. You can’t bring a crowbar out on the field and clothesline the runner with it as he goes by. You can’t use a Taser. And you can’t hit him in the helmet with your helmet.

JL: The one play from Sunday where I think “unnecessary”-ness is in dispute is the Dunta Robinson hit on DeSean Jackson.

Worth noting that two legendary* receivers (Sterling Sharpe and Cris Carter) said that Jackson was partially to blame for running too quickly through a zone defense. Is running too quickly through a zone defense the equivalent of wearing a short skirt to a frat party?

TS: That seems, yes, a lot like blaming someone for wearing a short skirt to a frat party.

JL: But that play was not illegal based on the rulebook. Robinson did not launch himself. He did not lead with his helmet. He did not hit Jackson in the head. Yet he was fined $50,000.

The problem here is that you can’t eliminate roughness from football by legislating technique. It’s totally possible to snap someone’s neck back by cracking them in the chest.

TS: Sometimes people are surprised by the way their bodies happen to collide (which is why the rulebook says intent isn’t necessary for something to be flagrant). But none of this applies to James Harrison, who sized up his illegal hit and delivered it deliberately.

JL: The NFL is trying to work backwards, by reverse-engineering the hits that generate the worst outcomes, brain-injury-wise.

But can you argue that the Dunta Robinson hit was unnecessary? We’re in the section of the rulebook labeled “impermissible use of helmet and facemask,” not “impermissible use of shoulder.”

TS: I think it falls under (f)(3):

a defender, using a face-on posture or with his head slightly lowered, hits a defenseless player in an area below the defenseless player’s neck, then the defender’s head moves upward, resulting in strong contact by the defender’s mask or helmet with the defenseless player’s head, neck, or face

That is a subcategory of “launching.”

JL: Yeah, but I don’t think he did that. (A) He didn’t launch himself, (B) his facemask or helmet never contacted Jackson anywhere.

“Launching is defined as springing forward and upward by a player who leaves his feet to make contact on the receiver.” Robinson never leaves his feet. Well, until he knocks himself out.

TS: He doesn’t leave the ground because his right leg is driving him straight into Jackson’s head. He’s clearly leaping into Jackson, but the collision happens before he can finish liftoff.

Here we have the NFL’s usual problem of trying to take a subjectively straightforward term and write it up exactly into words.

JL: Pretty much. Which makes it a legal hit. And which makes the rulebook’s obsession with “launching” kind of strange.

TS: Isn’t the Jackson hit also covered by (g)?

(g) if the initial force of the contact by a defender’s helmet (including facemask), forearm, or shoulder is to the head or neck area of a defenseless player.

JL: But he hit Jackson in the chest. I suppose the upper chest is the “neck area.”

TS: I’ve been back and forth over the clip, and the most likely sequence of events seems to be that Robinson led with his helmet, landing a glancing blow to the upper chest, and then clobbered Jackson in the head with his shoulder.

JL: I strongly believe that if both players had popped up off the ground and dusted themselves off, Robinson wouldn’t have been fined. This seems like a case of retroactively trying to find something illegal about a hit that led to an injury.

TS: I think it’s more like a drunk driver who kills someone. Yeah, lots of people drive drunk and get home safely.

Between the launching (and whatever the rule specifies about leaving the ground, it seems clear that it was trying to ban the kind of kinetic action that Robinson was doing) and the leading with the crown of his own helmet, and the kill shot to the head or neck or chin of the receiver-well, it was an unsafe play, and it had unsafe results, and I think the rulebook does have it covered.

JL: I guess my question is, what is Robinson supposed to do? Based on the path both players were taking, there was no way Jackson wasn’t going to get clobbered.

TS: That is the question. There are a lot of bars in America that you can only get to or from by automobile.

JL: If Robinson was a foot shorter, then he would have slammed Jackson in the middle of his chest and broken his ribs. Maybe ruptured his spleen. I guess that’s a preferable outcome.

TS: Remember when Drew Bledsoe basically bled out in the postgame? And that gave the world Tom Brady! So maybe everybody should just maim everybody all the time.

[*Correction: Josh Levin originally and incorrectly wrote that Cris Carter and Sterling Sharpe are in the NFL Hall of Fame.]