Steelers linebacker James Harrison, left, works against Sylvester Stevenson during drills at the team's afternoon practice Thursday.
By Ed Bouchette Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Not only does Steelers president Art Rooney disagree with the NFL's ruling on James Harrison's hit, but he also signaled a cautionary warning to the league that continuing to be so heavy-handed could have consequences.
Mr. Rooney, in an interview with the Post-Gazette Thursday, said the team would back Mr. Harrison in his appeal of a $75,000 fine the league issued to him Tuesday for what it claimed was an illegal high hit on Cleveland wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi.
"We've told James that if he decides to appeal, he has our support," Mr. Rooney said. Mr. Harrison's agent, Bill Parise, said he filed an appeal Wednesday.
"I think the play was a legal hit," Mr. Rooney said. "It's on the borderline, though."
Borderline is not flagrant, and Mr. Rooney said he was more concerned about how the league moves forward on such hits, and cautioned that suspensions, as threatened by the league, should not be doled out willy-nilly.
"The thing I'm concerned about going forward is the level of discipline and how far we're going with that," Mr. Rooney said. "And I hope that the league office is going to draw a distinction between a flagrant hit, an egregious hit -- whatever these words are that are getting thrown around -- versus something that is a violation but is not flagrant."
Mr. Rooney joined coach Mike Tomlin and Mr. Harrison himself in declaring the hit on Mr. Massaquoi a clean one.
"James' play, I think, was a football play," Mr. Rooney said. "I understand the part about not launching yourself. I think that's the part that was on the borderline. I mean, did he lunge at the guy to make the tackle or did he launch himself?"
Mr. Harrison's fine was the largest of three the league issued to players for what it termed illegal hits during games on Sunday. New England's Brandon Meriweather and Atlanta's Dunta Robinson each were fined $50,000 for their hits.
While not saying the word, it was obvious Mr. Rooney believed that the NFL overreacted to at least two of those plays. He says the only one that should have drawn such a fine was Mr. Meriweather's helmet-to-helmet hit on Baltimore tight end Todd Heap.
"If you look at the plays last weekend, there was only one play ... that was flagrant; and yet when the fine comes out, our guy gets the biggest fine.
"My concern going forward is how is this discipline going to be handled, and are they going to try to draw a distinction as far as suspensions between something that is flagrant and something that's just a fine. I hope that is the direction we're going in, but I don't know."
Mr. Rooney said he was speaking out of concern for the sport and not merely because one of his players was fined.
"Look, we have to be concerned with player safety. I'm in agreement, I think we're all in agreement that the helmet-to-helmet hits are something we have to find ways to take out of the game as much as we can. The other side of it is, it's still football, and guys are out there trying to make tackles. There's going to be helmet-to-helmet contact on occasion.
"I don't think that you can say every time there's one of those hits and a guy gets knocked out that a guy should be suspended for it. I just don't think we can be that black and white."
NFL owners such as Mr. Rooney voted for the safety rules, including a more stringent one added in March in which a receiver must be able to have a split second to put himself in position to protect himself before he gets nailed. However, the owners are not the ones issuing the fines and/or suspensions. That job belongs to Ray Anderson, the NFL vice president of football operations.
"I'm supportive in general trying to take the hits out of the game if we can," Mr. Rooney said. "But I'd hope we don't overreact and we try to draw distinctions between what's flagrant and what isn't flagrant."
Mr. Rooney also believes that criticism of officials for not calling penalties on borderline plays -- none was called Sunday on Mr. Harrison's hit on Mr. Massaquoi -- could prompt officials to throw flags more often and hurt the game's quality.
"It's not a play that stuck out as, boom, there's one that should be flagged," Mr. Rooney said. "I think that's another concern: Are we now going to see flags on any kind of close call like this? The stuff that's happened on the field, a lot of times it's, as we say, a bang-bang play, it happens so fast that the officials are going to miss a call. Fine, let that be reviewed by the league office, let it be handled that way.
"If we're now going to see flags all over the place every time somebody hits somebody, I'm concerned about where that's going in terms of the quality of the game."
Mr. Rooney said he had spoken to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell but had received no promises of how the league would react to such future hits.
"I don't know that we're going to know where this is going until we see the discipline as the weeks go on," Mr. Rooney said. "I think right now this is kind of a new phase, and so we're going to have to see how they're going to deal with it. I have not been given any assurance that there is going to be a distinction made between the flagrant and the nonflagrant hits. But I hope that's the way it's going to be handled as far as suspensions. ... It's really a question of how far is it going to go? And when we bring suspensions into it, I don think suspensions should be a routine discipline that we have every time something like this happens."