Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Working both ends of the street

The recent controversy over hits in the NFL shows that the league is, to borrow a phrase from my dad, working both ends of the street.

Not that the league is much different from many other forms of entertainment in this respect. Norman Lear built his TV empire on "All in the Family," a show that condemned bigotry while making it humorous. Some people laughed with Archie Bunker, others laughed at him, but everybody watched.

So it is with the NFL's policy toward "illegal" hits. The fines of several players, including Steeler James Harrison, reflect a recent concern with the damage some hits can do to players.

I can understand why the NFL wants to tone down violence in the game, especially since evidence shows that the cumulative effect of a career full of hits can result in a variety of health problems and premature death. Retirement benefits and liability have become issues, so the NFL is not addressing this concern solely out of the goodness of its heart.

But this recent concern causes its own problem. Let's face it--much of the attraction of football is in its violence. Something in us wants to see the big hits, as long as they're within the rules of the game. "Jacked Up!" got our attention in a way "C'Mon, Man!" just can't.

The NFL knows this. Until last week, they were selling pictures of the hit on the Browns' Mohammed Massaquoi that cost Harrison $75,000. Since that one's been taken down, here's one of Harrison sacking Philip Rivers. Perfectly legal, and, as you can see from the price list, very lucrative.

It remains to be seen how far the NFL will be able to go with toning down the violence. Football is a violent game, after all, and there is the risk that fans could lose interest if the action is slowed too much. Egregious shots, such as leading with the head, should not be tolerated. The balance between the appeal of the big hit and the safety of the players will not be easy to reconcile in the next few years. The NFL may have to work both ends of the street for quite some time.