NFL to fine teams over players’ illegal hits


Teams will be fined if their players collect too many fines for illegal hits, such as James Harrison’s hit on Mohamed Massaquoi. (Keith Srakocic/Associated Press)
May 24, 2011

The NFL said Tuesday that it will begin fining teams whose players collect a significant number of disciplinary actions for illegal hits, a move designed to encourage franchises to emphasize that tacklers must avoid hits to opponents’ heads.

The measure, announced as an owners meeting began at a downtown hotel here, comes after last season’s NFL crackdown on enforcement of illegal hits to the head. But last season’s efforts were aimed only at players, not their teams.

“It is going to be implemented,” said Adolpho Birch, the NFL’s senior vice president of law and labor policy. “Some of the details, we’re still working out.”

Those details include the number of disciplinary actions or the amount of fines against players that would trigger a fine against a team, and the size of penalties against teams.

“It will be significant and reasonable,” Birch said.

The rule will take effect during the upcoming season. The NFL has a similar system in effect to discipline teams for multiple violations by players of the sport’s personal conduct policy, which governs off-field misbehavior.

According to the league, three to four teams would have been sanctioned if the plan had been in effect last season.

Several Pittsburgh Steelers players were highly critical of the league’s enforcement crackdown last season. Steelers linebacker James Harrison was assessed $100,000 in fines and he and other Pittsburgh players expressed opposition to the NFL’s approach.

“We would have qualified” for the team fine, Steelers President Art Rooney II said Tuesday. “I think that we’ll have to wait and see how it works. I hope it’s used judiciously.”

Also Tuesday, the owners expanded protections for “defenseless” receivers and banned players from launching themselves to hit defenseless opponents.

“We feel like we’ve got to get these techniques out of the game,” said Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay, chairman of the NFL’s competition committee.

The changes approved Tuesday say that a receiver making a catch is considered defenseless until he is able to avoid or ward off a would-be tackler. Previously, he had been classified defenseless only while making a catch.

“For player safety purposes, we need to extend that protection,” McKay said.

Any hit to the head of a defenseless player results in a 15-yard penalty. Under the changes approved Tuesday, the league streamlined the categories of defenseless players to include a kicker or punter during the kick and ensuing return; a quarterback following a change in possession; and a player who receives a blind-side block under certain conditions.

Under the no-launching rule, an offender can be ejected for a flagrant violation.

The owners also approved a proposal to slightly scale back the protection for a quarterback who is hit in the head while throwing a pass. Such a hit now must be “forcible” to be penalized. “That will lead to judgment,” McKay said. “We’re putting a little on the referee here.”

The owners’ meeting is scheduled to conclude Wednesday. It comes with the sport nearly 21 / 2 months into a lockout of players imposed by owners March 12. The league and players are awaiting a hearing scheduled for June 3 in St. Louis on the legality of the lockout.

The owners were briefed Tuesday on both the courtroom developments and the ongoing talks with players, NFL negotiator Jeff Pash told reporters.

“Whoever prevails [in the appeals court], it doesn’t resolve anything,” Pash said. “The only way to resolve this is through negotiation. . . We can have an agreement that can work well. We’ve shown that in the past.”

Asked about speculation that the appellate court’s ruling will lead to intensified talks between the league and the players’ side, Pash said: “It may well. All I’m saying is that it shouldn’t take a court ruling to prompt serious negotiations. . . . There’s a fair and balanced and positive agreement to be made. I really believe that.”

Birch said the NFL would consider turning over its testing program for performance-enhancing drugs to the World Anti-Doping Agency if it cannot reach an agreement with the players. The sport’s collectively bargained drug-testing program is not in effect during the lockout.

The league has proposed blood-testing players for human growth hormone, something the players’ now dissolved union has resisted in the past. The union indicated during negotiations that it would listen to the league’s proposal on the subject.

The NFL also announced the cancellation of its rookie symposium, which had been scheduled for late June in Canton, Ohio. The annual event is designed to help rookies adjust to life in the NFL.

Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.
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