Each Super Bowl has its designated Bad Guys, and this vintage of the Pittsburgh Steelers has at least two. But with Ben Roethlisberger on best behavior, the quarterback finds himself on the cusp of a most curious redemption. This could happen only in the NFL. To win a Super Bowl is to be forgiven.
Roethlisberger, accused of several sexual misdeeds, needs only to keep playing the part: humbled and contrite, older and wiser. Maybe he’ll even get his beef-jerky deal back.
More interesting, entirely unrepentant and infinitely more admirable, however, is the Steelers’ other villain, outside linebacker James Harrison. He doesn’t care if you like him. In fact, he probably prefers that you fear him, especially if you’re an opponent. He doesn’t need any friends, certainly not outside his own locker room, and definitely doesn’t need any endorsements.
Harrison began Media Day — an exercise in commerce disguised as journalism — more than 10 minutes late to his interview podium. Then he made a very conspicuous show, of sweeping all Gatorade products from the podium before taking his seat. All that was left was the Steelers cap and a microphone.
“That’s all I need,” he said.
I have nothing against Gatorade. But I almost wanted to applaud. There was something righteous in Harrison’s contempt. Pimpin’ ain’t easy, the saying goes, unless you’re the NFL. But Harrison wasn’t going to let the league make another dollar off him.
Rewind to Oct. 17. That Sunday saw at least four spectacularly concussive hits delivered in HD. Two of them were administered by Harrison, helmet-first KOs of Browns receiver Mohamed Massaquoi and running back Joshua Cribbs. Though neither play drew a flag, Harrison was called into the commissioner’s office (“a waste of time,” he called it) and fined $75,000 (later reduced to $50,000) for his day’s work.
“They were looking for a poster boy to implement their rule,” Harrison says of Roger Goodell’s anti-concussion posse. “And they just chose me.”
Poster boy. It’s a demeaning term. And James Harrison, whatever his faults, doesn’t want to be demeaned. Nor does he want to sell Gatorade on behalf of a league that fined him a total of $100,000 this season.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not pro-concussion. I applaud Goodell’s efforts here. I don’t care if the players have to wear helmets that make them look like the Jack in the Box mascot. If it makes the game safer, it makes the game better. Just the same, football has always been and always will be a brutal game. The NFL didn’t change the rules, or more accurately, start enforcing them because they cared about the players. They changed because they got busted, largely due to the efforts of New York Times reporter Alan Schwarz.
So, yes, after years of denying that pro football had a concussion problem, Harrison served as a very convenient poster boy. He was sullen, unapologetic and, despite what he says, had a reputation as a headhunter. But in this Super Bowl week, amid all the talk of owners locking out players just a month from now, he has also managed to reframe the debate, turning a health and safety issue into a hypocrisy issue.
The NFL doesn’t really care about Mohamed Massaquoi any more than it cares about James Harrison. It cares about Gatorade. “The league does what it needs to do to make more money,” he said.
What about concussions, Harrison was asked.
“I’m not worried about that,” he said, adding that those he’s sustained were “never bad enough to come out” of a game. “If you don’t tell, they don’t know — unless you get knocked out with your arms straight up in the air.”
That’s the mind-set the league — and the union — must eventually break. In the meantime, though, players are left to feel that the NFL just doesn’t get it. The game is popular because of the speed and the violence with which it is played. That’s what the fans like. That’s how the players were taught.
“You can change the way you decide to hit someone if you have time,” said Harrison. “But it happens so fast . . . Our defense plays 1,000 miles an hour.”
That’s why they’re in the Super Bowl, of course, where Harrison has become an unlikely rallying point for the Steelers and, just maybe, for the NFLPA’s rank and file.
“It definitely brought us closer together,” Pittsburgh linebacker James Farrior said of Harrison’s fines. “Like everybody was against us.”
Hines Ward points out that the day after Harrison laid out Cribbs and Massaquoi, the NFL was selling his image on its website. “First they take money from him,” Ward said, “then they try to make money off him.”
And a couple of more regular-season games. The league wants those, too.
Ward has every right to be offended. But not shocked. The NFL has been doing this for years: making money off the bad guys.