Here's an admission.
First, I'm a lifelong Cleveland Browns fan. Some of my earliest memories are fuzzy recollections of Paul McDonald goofing on Brian Sipe at Lakeland Community College, morphed into Bernie Kosar using his caustic wit to disarm petulant autograph seekers and finally – and most importantly – the temporary, albeit searing desire of realizing that I needed my very own Jeff Garcia skull cap.
I would hope that these memories and my still fond ones for the Ghosts of Browns' Running Back Past – Madre Hill, Ben Gay, Lee Suggs and Jerome Harrison – would be enough to credential me as a true fan of the most difficult franchise in the league to support.
However, I'm also a fan of the league and its more original personalities – especially football players who aren't afraid to speak their minds during an era of unyielding media coverage and often self-negating political correctness.
Even if such a player is a Pittsburgh Steeler – particularly one known for figuratively eviscerating my team's quarterbacks like an ancient Germanic warrior.
After the NFL handed out a season-long suspension to Saints' linebacker Jonathan Vilma, an 8 game sentence to now Green Bay defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove and four and three game penalties to Saints' defensive end Will Smith and Browns' linebacker Scott Fujita, James Harrison took to Twitter and offered his thoughts.
"Ridiculous, and nobody really sees why the punishments have been so severe over the past 3 4 years! Lawsuits and 18 games???"
Time for a second admission – I love conspiracy theories. Just call me the Fox Mulder of NFL analysis.
Of course, even the most skeptical of us knows there's always a grain of truth to be found in any conspiracy.
Harrison – who has continually proven to be NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's nemesis – is making the case that the NFL's still novice approach to legislating player safety is connected to numerous lawsuits filed by a growing number of ex-players. In the suits, former players contend that the NFL neglected to protect players from head injuries, downplayed the significance of these injuries and failed to properly link the effect of concussions with long-term brain injuries.
Harrison's tweet implies that the league is using the Saints' bounty scandal as a public relations tool to offset the pending damage that could arrive via the ex-player lawsuits. Extending his argument, the only way the NFL can justify adding two additional regular season games – and millions of extra dollars – is by ensuring that the league is serious about protecting its players.
Say what you will about Harrison – and most fans (especially those with Cleveland ties) have said plenty over the past two years – but the veteran linebacker hits on a sentiment that can't be ignored.
Simply put, the NFL has so far proven to be more concerned about presenting an "image" that it protects its players, rather than taking the kind of proactive measures that could actually ensure safety. After all, if the league were truly serious about reducing the number of concussions and resulting brain injuries, the game itself would be radically altered to the point of becoming flag football or resembling a Scouting Combine workout.
Any hit to the head – either delivered or received – would become as archaic as a 15-round heavyweight boxing match in 2012.
Merely giving lip service to the issue – even the glossy, billion dollar variety afforded by a sport that is worth more than most small countries – does nothing to solve what is and will be a life-altering health issue for hundreds of players. Scientific research has only begun to discover the damaging effects of conditions such as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which led to the suicide of former Bears safety Dave Duerson.
In doing so, the league is able to continue evolving as a capitalistic monolith – swallowing up obscene television contracts and expanding internationally. Those extra two games that Harrison referenced are but a small sample of the kind of projected growth that the league's owners are currently salivating over. Or, look for concussions to occur on NFL fields in Los Angeles, Mexico, Canada and perhaps even China before the decade is out.
In order to ensure a path towards this kind of future, the league is forced to overreact when confronted with players who can't harness the kind of natural aggressiveness inherent to the game. Record fines have been instituted – particularly against players who man the middle of a defensive zone in a league that rewards passing. Nearly a half-million dollars of Harrison's money is evidence of this approach. Or, when the opportunity presents itself, the NFL can use the Saints' bounty program as a scapegoat of another sort.
Administering a punishment comparable to a NCAA death penalty, the league has essentially carved up the Saints' front office and coaching staff and has now turned its attention to slashing individual players. Yet, punishing players like Vilma, Hargrove, Smith and Fujita – long after the fact – sends only a distorted message regarding the league's values.
After the original punishments to Sean Payton, Mickey Loomis and Joe Vitt were handed down, Goodell cited the idea of protecting the "integrity" of the game. Never mind the savagery of a typical Sunday framed by timed intervals of mini-car wrecks or the increasing number of ex-players now unable to function as normal human beings. Instead, Goodell was seemingly prompted by a situation that dangled perilously close to the sport taboos of gambling and having additional money affect a player's performance.
You know things are about to get serious when "other" people start making money off the NFL.
In the Saints' specific case, they basically got caught running a well-organized bounty program that allegedly rewarded players for everything from "making big plays" to delivering "knockouts" and "cartoffs." However, it's becoming evident that the Saints were also victims of bad timing.
At the least, the Saints' scandal will serve as yet another lesson for those who go against the authority of the league. Of course, the Saints' saga and dramatic punishments will also help temporarily distract the public from the increasingly ugly truths being revealed about America's favorite game on an almost monthly basis.
The recent death of former Falcons safety Ray Easterling and the shocking news regarding former Charger great Junior Seau will only rekindle talk regarding how primitive the NFL's approach to player safety truly is.
The likes of the Saints and Harrison can only mask the importance of the league offering an honest admission of its own.