“Justice is blind.”
It is a principle that has guided western jurisprudence for millennia. “All men are bad judges in their own cases” wrote James Madison in Federalist Number 10. Madison was right of course. When deciding between what is just and what is unjust it is near impossible to divorce oneself from self-interest.
So we insulate judges from the political process. We try people with anonymous juries. Parties are represented in courts by professional advocates with a limited personal stake in the outcome. The system of blind justice, while imperfect, has served western civilization well.
- Unfortunately, Roger Goodell’s suspension of James Harrison confirms that blind justice exists not in the NFL.
Over the last several years evidence has mounted on the disastrous, long-term impact that concussions and repeated head trauma can have an NFL player. The NFL took note, encouraged players to keep a watchful eye on their teammates, put posters up in locker rooms, and prohibited players from returning to games after suffering concussions.
But on the field things continued as normal. That is, until October 6, 2010. The big news that weekend was not the return of Ben Roethlisberger, but two hits by James Harrison.
Those hits led NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to implement an arbitrary policy aimed at cracking down on hard hits, particularly hits to the head.
And he made James Harrison his whipping boy, fining him a record $125,000 dollars. The record reflects that the first several fines that James Harrison drew did not even warrant flags on the field.
Harrison did himself no favors, admitting that while he never sought to injure a fellow player, he did seek to inflict pain. There’s a fine line between the two, particularly when you’re talking about 250-300 pound men running at each other at full speed.
Whether Harrison knew it or not he was throwing the gauntlet down to the NFL, and Roger Goodell and his lackey Ray Anderson were only too happy to pick it up. The James Harrison fine fest began.
The Steelers stood by James Harrison. Art Rooney II was clear that he had no problem with protecting against helmet-to-helmet hits: Rooney’s quibble was with the way the league was changing the rules in mid-season.
Rooney was right of course. He also might have added that Goodell’s enforcement of his 2010 seat-of-the-pants helmet-to-helmet hit policy was arbitrary. Referees started throwing flags for love taps on quarterbacks, at the request of the Tom Brady and Peyton Mannings of the league and, on the flip side, fines started being awarded for plays that no one even thought warranted a flag.
Clarified Rules, Fuzzy Enforcement
The NFL did clarify his rules and procedures aimed at of minimizing head trauma. This is completely the right thing to do, as head trauma could do to the NFL what an incoherent Muhammad Ali did for pro boxing.
Nonetheless, enforcement has been spotty.
In 2011 the NFL has issued ticky tacky fines, reasonable and justified ones, but turned a blind eye to other helmet-to-helmet hits, such as the one James Harrison suffered in Houston. (Interestingly enough, no You Tube video of that hit seems to be available – could it be that the NFL PR people don’t want people to know that all helmet-to-helmet hits are equal, but some helmet-to-helmet hits are more equal…?)
Precedent Breaking Suspension
James Harrison, for all his bravado, has altered his style of play this season, and going into the Browns game he had not been flagged for a helmet-to-helmet hit.
In suspending Harrison, the NFL cited his past history dating back to 2009, and clarified that players had been informed they were not entering 2011 with a clean slate.
Yet, as Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain documented, several other players with a past history have been guilty of far more blatant violations of the helmet-to-helmet hits. Worse yet, players like Richard Seymour continue to punch people out post whistle hits, and continue to draw smaller fines than ones levied for actions taken in the heat of a game.
The Harrison suspension is without precedent.
The last NFL player to be suspended* for a pre-whistle illegal tackle on a quaterback was Charles Martin. Look at the video for yourself (available as of 12/13/11 – not sure how long before the NFL’s lawyers force YouTube to take this down).
A couple of things stand out:
- Jim McMahon had clearly released the ball before being hit
- Charles Martin knew McMahon had thrown the ball
- McMahon had his back to the rusher
- Martin not only had time to stop, but adjusted his momentum to deliver a late hit
For this Martin got suspended two games.
Now, look at James Harrison’s offense (video available as of 12/13/11):
Let’s make a few points
- Colt McCoy had clearly tucked the ball and was running
- McCoy was facing Harrison
- Harrison began his tackle while McCoy was still a runner
- McCoy tossed the ball away at the last moment
No one can argue that Harrison did not lead with the helmet. But that is legal against an open field runner (whether it should be is different question).
You can say that Harrison should have adjusted his strike zone, given that when it comes to quarterbacks, the burden of proof is on the defender. Ok, but unlike Martin, can you reasonably say that Harrison had time to alter his actions when it was clear that McCoy was going to throw the ball?
Regardless, there is no way anyone can argue that Harrison’s act was anywhere near as malicious as Charles Martin’s was 25 years ago.
Eye on Harrison’s Explosion
James Harrison doesn’t say much, but when he does speak, words explode from his mouth. This past off season Harrison took NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to task in an interview with Paul Solotaroff.
Later, the Solotaroff confirmed that Harrison was merely saying on the record what scores of other NFL players were too timid to publicly.
Harrison’s comments went public while the lockout was on, and Roger Goodell could do little to act, and when the lockout ended, Goodell issued no punishment.
One wonders why?
Is it too much to surmise that Goodell simply sat quiet and bided his time until James Harrison gave him an excuse to get even?
There’s no way to prove that of course, but it would be equally hard to disprove the fact that, far from being blind, in the NFL justice is guided by the selective gaze of Goodell’s eye.