More and more lately, it seems like the most oft-spoken word in the NFL is, "Unnnhhhhhhhh." Contrary to appearances, the players aren't pixel-generated, and, unlike video game figures, their arms and legs aren't detachable and their heads don't fly off and spin like cartoon tops. I shouldn't have to explain this to Warren Sapp, but apparently I do.

Sapp, and a few other players around the league, have apparently so depersonalized the game that they have lost the ability to think, and therefore to discern between tough and violent, a difference which, if you do choose to think, is actually quite definite. Toughness hurts. Violence injures.

In the NFL, players do most of their talking with their hats and their championship rings, and there is a certain acceptable level of hurt. Call it legalized fighting, or high-speed chess with human bodies; either way, the purpose is to dislodge your opponent, or the ball. If you're squeamish about that, go watch a medical show. But just because football is a collision sport doesn't mean participants should lose their basic judgment and human feeling.

In fact, judgment and feeling is critical in separating an NFL game from, say, something that needs to be controlled with fire hoses, rubber bullets and pepper spray. The purpose of the game isn't to put an opponent in the hospital with injuries similar to ones he might receive in a car wreck. If you do so, even accidentally, you should probably feel bad about it, and maybe even apologize. This is the way most of us were raised.

And this is why the Green Bay Packers are threatening to cut block Warren Sapp the next time they see him.

Retaliation is unacceptable, of course. But you have to wonder at the intensity of the Packers' reaction to what Sapp did, and the controversy that has stretched on for a week. What's going on here? Sapp seems to have violated something, some sensibility, if not the letter of the rules. Sapp, a Pro Bowler each of the past five seasons, is apparently a decent guy, but he represents a bad trend.

Last Sunday, Sapp leveled Green Bay tackle Chad Clifton on a third-quarter interception return, hitting him so hard that Clifton went numb and was carted off to the hospital with severe hip and pelvic injuries. The interception helped turn the game in the Bucs' favor and they won, 21-7.

Afterward, incensed Packers coach Mike Sherman approached Sapp as he walked off the field and told him he considered it a cheap-shot block. "What you did was wrong," he said. Sapp replied by screaming obscenities and told Sherman, "You're so tough, put a jersey on."

A Packers security guard had to step between them. Days later, Clifton was still in the hospital -- he remained there through Friday and his season is over and maybe his career, too. The Packers' staff was still so angry late in the week that offensive line coach Larry Beightol called the Bucs' defensive coordinator, Monte Kiffin, and told him that if they meet again in the playoffs, Sapp better watch his knees. This drew a memo from Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Meantime, Sapp continues to maintain it was a clean hit -- a view backed up by the officials and the NFL, which has declined to fine him.

Why are Sherman and Beightol so angry? It's not simply that they are sore losers, as the Bucs contend. Rather, they recognized a distinction between a hard collision and a needlessly violent one, even if it was within the rules. Anyone who saw the replay immediately notices two things, the viciousness of the blow, and the fact that the ball carrier was nowhere in sight.

And they resented Sapp's seeming lack of remorse, when he celebrated the interception with his teammates while the player he may have ruined lay on the field.

Violence is an issue the NFL has been trying to grapple with since 1995, when it rewrote its rules to deal with a rise in injuries. The league has a legitimate fear -- that as players keep getting bigger and faster, the injuries will get ever more catastrophic. This season, league disciplinarian Gene Washington has levied 19 fines, including $75,000 to Dallas safety Darren Woodson for putting Seattle's Darrell Jackson in the hospital with a concussion and seizure, and $50,000 to Philadelphia safety Brian Dawkins for separating the shoulder of the Giants' Ike Hilliard.

But most NFL players are wary if not outright resentful of the league's attempts to govern violence, especially since it sells video highlights celebrating big hits with titles like "Crunch Time." (The phrase for what Sapp did to Clifton is "blowing him up," a reference to the way the little figures explode in NFL video games.) To players, it's the height of hypocrisy that a league that baldly markets violence then turns around and disciplines them for it, when it's their starting positions and livelihoods at stake.

A typical response by a fined player is that football is a high-velocity sport that requires split-second reactions, and they can't stop themselves when they have been coached for years to hit instinctively. Where do you draw the line, they ask, between a clean hit based on speed and training with no intent to injure, as opposed to illegal hits that are intended to injure? "Do I let him catch it and then put him gently on the ground and say 'Tag, you're it'?" Dawkins asked The Post's Leonard Shapiro. "They don't pay me to go out there and play patty-cake."

But Dawkins is being disingenuous -- as anyone who saw him hit Hilliard knows. There is a big difference between patty-cake and the blow he delivered, several gradations of difference, and the players and coaches know it even when league officials are uncertain.

Can the NFL realistically legislate against violence? Probably not. It can only try to regulate. The violence level is more realistically established and controlled by the participants, between themselves -- and this is why Sherman and Beightol confronted Sapp. In their view, Sapp had a choice: He leveled Clifton when something less would have sufficed. Every player makes these kinds of choices, on each down. During his phone call to the Bucs, Beightol apparently pointed this out, rightly or wrongly. "We can cut block him on every play," Beightol supposedly said.

NFL players have some of the most highly trained bodies in the world, and they make these split-second choices all the time. They decide when to start and stop, where to hit and how hard, what the greatest point of risk is for himself and the guy across the hash mark. When a ball is overthrown, for instance, a decision is made. If a defender doesn't pull up or veer off, it's because he gives himself permission to wound, is focused on the kill shot and a "SportsCenter" highlight.

Players and coaches are the ones who best understand the forces and pressures at work. They know what constitutes a disciplined tackle versus a cheap shot, what is an accidental helmet hit as opposed to a malicious one, what is accident or intentional, what is discretionary force to send a message as opposed to sheer sadism. What Sherman and Beightol did was wrong -- but they highlighted to Sapp and others that violence is as much a matter of a player's choices as it is of the rules. To say otherwise is to suggest he's not entirely in command of himself.