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Art Rooney breaks ranks on helmet-to-helmet hits

It’s one thing for current and former players to complain about the league’s new focus on eliminating, as to defenseless receivers, the use of the helmet and/or the striking of the head and neck.

It’s another thing for coaches like Mike Tomlin to join in the parade of voices claiming that hits the NFL has deemed to be illegal aren’t really illegal.

The dynamic moves to a new level when an owner speaks out regarding the situation, especially when the owner’s last name rhymes with “Mooney.”

According to Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Steelers president Art Rooney II has declared his support for linebacker James Harrison.

I think the play was a legal hit,” Rooney said. “It’s on the borderline, though.”

Rooney explained that he’s not sure whether the hit against Browns receiver Mohamed Massaquoi was an illegal launch or a legal lunge. “James’ play, I think, was a football play,” 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?”

This argument, while valid, overlooks that the fine was imposed not just for launching at a player who has made a catch but has not yet had time to protect himself, but for violating “Rule 12, Section 2, Article 8 (g) of the NFL Official Playing Rules, which states that it is unnecessary roughness if the initial force of the contact by a defender’s helmet, forearm, or shoulder is to the head or neck area of a defenseless receiver who is catching or attempting to catch a pass.”

Rooney also echoed the notion that the fine against Harrison was part of the broader reaction to a 15-minute slice of real time on Sunday afternoon when multiple hits to the head occurred in games throughout the country. “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,” Harrison said.

Yes, but Rooney fails to mention the fact that Harrison’s extra $25,000 came not from the hit on Massaqoui per se, but from the fact that it was Harrison’s second unnecessary roughness fine of the year.

“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,” Rooney said.

“I’m supportive in general trying to take the [illegal helmet-to-helmet] 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.”

It’s a fair point, but surely it’s one that Commissioner Roger Goodell would have preferred that Rooney had handled with the same discretion that the league office applied to the Rooney family’s circumvention of the rules regarding simultaneous ownership of an NFL franchise and gambling interests that beyond the league’s narrow gambling exemptions. In that case, the league office worked quietly and patiently behind the scenes with the Rooneys, giving them all the time they needed to fix the problem -- and frustrating officials from other teams who wondered whether their owners would have received similar consideration. In the end, the special consideration included the league treating Rooney and his father, Dan, as one person under the league’s clear requirement that only one person own 30 percent of each team.

It’ll be interesting to see whether the league office has anything to say about Rooney’s remarks. In October 2006, only two months after Goodell was appointed to his current position with strong support of Dan Rooney, Goodell fined Dan Rooney $25,000 for criticizing game officials after Pittsburgh’s overtime loss to the Falcons.

Ironically, that game also featured a helmet-to-helmet hit against Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, which knocked him out of the game with a concussion. No fine was imposed against Falcons defensive end Chauncey Davis.

In this case, Art Rooney arguably had no choice but to speak out in support of Harrison and coach Mike Tomlin. Still, at a time when player confusion has been exacerbated by a head coach who refuses to accept the fact that Harrison’s hit was beyond the boundaries of the rules, a public acknowledgment of that same fact by Art Rooney will serve only to make the players feel even more like they’ve just taken a succession of helmet-to-helmet hits of their own.