Harrison can't escape NFL's microscope

Whether he "changes" as his coach suggests or not, James Harrison's tongue and his on-field actions will forever keep him in the crosshairs of the league office, writes Len Pasquarelli.

Chances are James Harrison has never heard of Hester Prynne, the flawed but unflappable protagonist of the "The Scarlet Letter."

No disrespect intended toward the Pittsburgh linebacker, banished for one game by the NFL concussion police on Tuesday morning, but reading the keys of the offense across from you isn't quite the same as mulling the much-studied and parsed novel. Probably the latest thing over which Harrison carefully pored was either the terse missive predictably delivered by FedEx on Tuesday, informing him of his one-game suspension, or the Steelers' defensive playbook.

Harrison, after all, majors in punishing ballcarriers, not perusing literature.

But the eight-year veteran, whose every move will be even more closely scrutinized now by league officials, might want to pick up a copy of the Nathaniel Hawthorne classic and give it some consideration during his one-week hiatus from the field.

Forget turning on Monday night's game at San Francisco, and pining away at not being able to rush the pocket and dump Alex Smith, just turn some pages instead. Just like Hester Prynne, after all Harrison has been branded forever with a scarlet letter.

Unfairly or not -- unlike some angry 'Burger natives, whose paranoia runs deep in all matters that involve the home team, we are ambivalent about the NFL ruling -- the "S" on the linebacker's chest now stands for "suspended," not "Steelers."

For all of her adult life, Prynne was unwittingly under the microscope of her Puritan neighbors, scorned by many for having given birth out of wedlock even after her husband was presumed lost at sea. Termed by one scholar "the embodiment of contradictions," and certainly an emotionally ambiguous figure, Prynne nonetheless persevered through resilience, inner strength, and the ability to ultimately configure her demeanor to social norms, no matter how dichotomous they seemed at times.

OK, it's admittedly a stretch from fiction set in the 17th Century to the 21st Century football field, we'll concede. But now Harrison must do the same, no matter how difficult it is to conform to the game's new standards.

Otherwise, the next suspension -- and, trust us, the league is prepared to come down again, and much harder, on its designated poster child -- will be even harsher.

One can argue interminably against the NFL's hypocrisy in such matters. In the same game for which Harrison's actions were so scrutinized, with the video replayed more often than "The Shawshank Redemption" shows up on Turner Movie Classics, Steelers' tailback Rashard Mendenhall was the victim of an obvious helmet-to-helmet hit by Cleveland linebacker Chris Gocong. Don't believe it? Get hold of some replay of the Browns' fourth-quarter goal-line stand. No flag. No second looks from game officials. Apparently, no scrutiny from the league's safety cops.

So if you want to make the point that the league's initiative against blows to the head that can cause concussions isn't exactly equitable toward all the defenseless players -- Mendenhall was already in the hole and could not have avoided Gocong at that point -- yeah, you'd be right. But the rules, as uneven and quarterback-biased as they appear to be, are the rules. And if Harrison wants to avoid another suspension from the NFL, which will study every hit he makes as if he were a convicted felon, is going to have to comply.

There are, as always, some ironies here. Over the past few seasons, Harrison's play has forced offensive opponents to play with their heads on a swivel.

Now he will have to do the same, to glance over his shoulder after every tackle to make sure the game officials (who, let's be honest, are only human, and will treat his like the marked man the league has rendered him) haven't flagged him. And how about the NFLPA, which will now have to defend Harrison in his appeal, at the same time they are lambasting the Browns for their handling of the concussed Colt McCoy?

But the bottom line, regardless of the debatable fairness and all the teeth gnashing in Pittsburgh, and the criticisms of commissioner Roger Goodell and his minions Ray Anderson and Merton Hanks, is that Harrison must somehow summon the strength and resolve and dignity to alter his game. The NFL, more conscious of head injuries than at any time in the past and determined to win the public relations debate on the subject, is not going to change.

And so Harrison must change his approach to the game and football purists will have to change their views of the sport.

And the local library might have to order in additional copies of "The Scarlet Letter."


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