Why are Harrison’s bosses blameless?

Let’s not make James Harrison the bad guy, the face of what’s wrong with football.

Harrison is 6 feet tall, 240 pounds, small by NFL standards. He’s one of 14 children, born to working-class parents. He walked on at Kent State. No NFL team drafted him. Combined, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens cut him four times. He toiled for several seasons as a special-teams daredevil. Harrison struggled academically in high school and college. He’s not a sophisticate.

James Harrison is a football player, a meathead, a self-made millionaire and star solely because he embraced every aspect of the NFL’s violent culture.

He’s not Randy Moss or Peyton Manning, players who excel at the game primarily because they were blessed with physical gifts that made their dominance virtually inevitable.

Harrison earned the 2008 defensive player of the year award and a $50 million contract because he hurt opposing players. For as long as I can remember, hurting — not injuring — the opposition has always been embraced and celebrated in football.

Coaches implore players to knock a man’s (private part) in the dirt. Billionaires hand out $50 million contracts to players skilled at the art form.

James Harrison is the bad guy? The league fined him $75,000 for doing what he was asked to do by Mike Tomlin and the Rooney family. Harrison is the focus of the NFL’s helmet-to-helmet controversy?

This is a joke.

I don’t blame Harrison for taking a day to contemplate the meaning of his life, to rethink his career, to ponder retirement. With its out-of-nowhere fines and threats of suspensions, the NFL has attacked Harrison’s identity.

If TV networks banned jokes about the president, Letterman, Leno and Kimmel might quit in protest. If FOXSports.com forbid stitching clown suits for hypocrites or championing Jeff George’s return to the NFL, I’d need a day or two to figure out the purpose of my life.

It’s not hard to understand James Harrison. He came from humble beginnings. He created wealth and financial stability for himself and his family by making the conscious decision to sacrifice his physical well-being as a football gladiator. He takes the same pride in his sacrifice as a coal-mining father of five would.

The emotional and passionate defenses we’ve heard this week of football’s violent culture from former players such as Matt Millen and Mark Schlereth are a defense of their sacrifice. The players are not all as stupid as you think. They know the hazards of playing the game. They justify taking the risk by focusing on the benefits it creates for their families.

We spend so much time lambasting athletes for blowing their money on cars, jewelry, baby-mamas and stupid business deals that we overlook that many of these guys “blow” a significant portion of their cash bailing out family and friends.

I don’t know James Harrison personally. What I do know is he’s from a big family. Small families have big problems. Big families have numerous big problems. I suspect a lot of people rely on Harrison from time to time.

In regards to the NFL’s crackdown on violent hits, Harrison is more worthy of sympathy than ridicule and derision.

That is not a defense of helmet-to-helmet contact. It’s not an attack on Roger Goodell for trying to improve the safety of his league. I’m in full support of what the league is attempting to accomplish.

I’m against singling out the players. They inherited football’s violent culture. They’re not the only ones who profit from it, but they suffer the severe health (and now financial) consequences. It’s not right.

You think Jerry Jones isn’t making a fortune from this gladiator sport? How about Bill Parcells? Or Bill Belichick? Or even the million-dollar offensive and defensive coordinators? Or the $300,000-a-year position coaches?

You can own a team, work in the front office and coach for 20 or 30 or even 40 years. A player is lucky to last three seasons.

The owners, executives and coaches are the architects and maintainers of the NFL’s unrepentant and highly marketable headhunting. If James Harrison is going to be demonized, fined and suspended, then why shouldn’t Tomlin and the Rooneys $uffer, too?

If the goal is to clean up the sport, then let’s attack the root causes, let’s put all the beneficiaries in the same boat.

During the Titans-Jaguars game Monday night, Jon Gruden and Ron Jaworski gushed during and after ESPN aired a highlight package of Tennessee defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil delivering a series of helmet-first hits from his playing days. The Titans have been accused of being the dirtiest team in football. Cecil and head coach Jeff Fisher are both former helmet-to-helmet safeties. But they’re not part of the problem.

James Harrison is the sole problem.

Athletes complain that we, the media, don’t understand them. They’re right. Sometimes we don’t even try. We get comfortable in our middle-agedness and jealousy of their wealth and blast away.

As we explore and come to grips with what’s wrong with football, please remember we all played a role in glorifying and rewarding the reckless violence.

E-mail Jason or follow him on Twitter. Media requests for Mr. Whitlock should be directed to Fox Sports PR.