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Published: Tuesday, 10/26/2010

Head games

JAMES Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers is the embodiment of a professional football player - big, tough, determined. You don't get named to the Pro Bowl three times by playing at the margins.

This month, the National Football League fined Mr. Harrison $75,000 for a helmet-to-neck hit on Cleveland's Mohamed Massaquoi. New England's Brandon Meriweather and Atlanta's Dunta Robinson were fined $50,000 each for hits in their games. If Mr. Harrison violates the rules again, the NFL says he could be suspended.

Mr. Harrison is appealing the fine. He and his advocates say his play is within the rules, and warn that the NFL risks watering down its brand of football. Several players complain that the league's enforcement of its rule that prohibits "using any part of the player's helmet or face mask to butt, spear, or ram an opponent violently or unnecessarily "leaves them wondering how to make a legal hit.

The dilemma is that damage from a concussion can appear insignificant at first, but players are eager to get back in the game. The long-term effects of repeated concussions can remain invisible for years. Yet the consequences, particularly from repeated head injuries, can be debilitating.

If the NFL wants players to take damaging hits seriously, it must do more than impose fines, which are like parking tickets to millionaire athletes. Game suspensions should get their attention. And during games, referees should be throwing flags for these offenses.

The NFL and its teams have been taking concussions and brain injuries more seriously. High-profile players have been forced into retirement, and retired players have been diagnosed with conditions normally associated with much older men. Congress is holding hearings on the subject.

On any given Sunday, as the cliche goes, the league must take a more aggressive approach to aggression that causes concussions. The NFL must crack down with every tool it has.



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