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Kovacevic: Harrison won't have last laugh

| Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011

For all the gnashing of teeth that followed James Harrison's one-game NFL suspension Tuesday, the one issue I couldn't recall being raised on Twitter, talk shows or anywhere else was the most relevant: What about Harrison's next hit?

Seemed everyone wanted to do a Zapruder-like breakdown of Harrison's helmet-to-helmet missile strike that concussed Cleveland quarterback Colt McCoy last week. Or they wanted to review every similar hit over the past decade, then tally up the misdeeds.

Oh, the injustice of it all, the Nation cried in virtual unison.

A few of Harrison's teammates piped up, too, with cornerback Ike Taylor saying: "I don't understand how you punish James for playing through the whistle. He didn't punch anybody in the privates. He didn't stomp on anybody. He didn't spit in anyone's face. You're going to suspend a man for playing football."

Some of it makes for worthy debate.

Thing is, the past isn't the issue here. It's the future.

Let's assume the NFL harbors no ill will toward the Steelers (I've never bought that, given the Rooneys' stature) or toward Harrison (not so sure there, given that Roger Goodell has been known to read Men's Journal). That would make the league's motivation, in theory, an honorable one: Reduce concussions.

Well, Harrison's hit on McCoy was, as the league subtly pointed out in the headline of its press release, his "FIFTH ILLEGAL HIT AGAINST A QUARTERBACK IN THREE SEASONS." The suspension was intended to be cumulative. Moreover, both of the rules cited in the release — one regarding a passer out of the pocket still receiving "special protections," the other regarding "hits to a passer's head and use of the helmet" — were violated.

Case closed. That was easy.

So, do you fine Harrison?

How much of a fine is an effective deterrent to a player whose contract is worth $51 million and who shrugged off $100,000 in fines last year?

I had thought until the announcement that the league would go with a fine, and for no small reason: No player had ever been suspended for a head hit between the whistles. But the league evidently saw Harrison as being beyond fines, so they went with the one avenue they knew would get his — and everyone's — attention: They took him off the field.

It was the right move if aimed at discouraging Harrison in the future. You'd have to think that being forced to watch his teammates play Monday night in San Francisco — a pretty big game against the 49ers, you might have heard — will sting far more than the $73,529 he'll forfeit. He'll be letting the whole team down.

But really, I'm not sure any message will get through.

Remember, Harrison was telling reporters Monday that he expected neither a suspension nor a fine. That was either him trying to spin things or being outright delusional.

Then, Harrison's initial reaction to the suspension on his Twitter account was "LOL!!!" That's Internet code for "laugh out loud."

Imagine the reaction if he'd merely been fined.

It might be instructive for the Steelers and Harrison to look at the case of the Penguins' Matt Cooke.

When Cooke was issued his 17-game NHL suspension last season, it was unprecedented but widely viewed as fair, even locally. He'd been running players for years, and no piecemeal punishment had any effect until this one. He sat out the playoffs and watched his team rubbed out in the first round. Worse, he heard everyone inside the organization, from Mario Lemieux on down, challenge him to get his act together or get lost.

Since then, Cooke has changed his style, has kept clean and has been a terrific third-line player for the Penguins.

"The way I saw it, I had no choice," Cooke told me Tuesday. "I knew there was going to be extra attention on me, and I'm sure it's the same way with James. You can't slip up."

Lesson learned all around.

The NFL was fair to take this step with Harrison, but only for now. That can't be fully judged until there are more suspensions like it.

The Steelers have been fair, too. Tuesday, Mike Tomlin sharply dismissed any paranoia about the league being out to get Harrison and said of the suspension: "We'll accept that. We're disappointed for James. He's worked extremely hard to change his game."

It might not feel fair to Harrison, who is appealing the suspension through his agent — without the team's blessing, perhaps• — and told longtime friend Jerome Bettis on Tuesday he has no plan to change anything about the way he plays.

This is one head-on collision Harrison can't win.

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