ARLINGTON, TEX. - After the NFL announced its crackdown on hits to the head in October, one player seemed to stand out for the continued attention he drew from league officials.
The Steelers have said they've put the issue behind them after advancing to their third Super Bowl in the last six seasons. But it has been clear in the two days since they arrived for Sunday's game that their differences with the league remain unresolved.
"I believe if you look at the film, you'll see guys that hit quarterbacks the same way that I do, if not worse, and they aren't flagged [for penalties] and they aren't fined either," Harrison said at Super Bowl media day Tuesday at Cowboys Stadium.
Harrison said he "felt like they might have been looking for a poster boy to implement their rule, and they just chose me."
Ray Anderson, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations, called Harrison's comments about unequal enforcement of the rules "misdirected" and said Tuesday: "Neither he nor anyone else was singled out. But he was a repeat offender and he was held accountable for that."
Anderson, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and other league officials have said they believe that players have begun to adjust the way they play the sport in the wake of the enforcement crackdown. Goodell and other league leaders have called the tougher enforcement necessary in the bid to eliminate dangerous techniques from the game that potentially lead to players suffering head injuries.
"We clearly over the course of the season saw players changing their approach- lowering their targets, refraining from gratuitous hits," Anderson said Tuesday. "Players adapted to play within the rules. There is no question in our minds it had the desired effect and we got more compliance with those rules."
The league stressed all season that it was enforcing existing rules, not creating new prohibitions on hits. Those existing rules prohibit hits to the head of players deemed to be in defenseless positions during games, including quarterbacks delivering passes and wide receivers in the process of making catches.
A spokesman said Tuesday the league did not have totals available for the fines assessed this season for illegal hits but the number of fines assessed for unnecessary roughness - a broader category that would include the fines for illegal hits to the head- decreased sharply, from 460 during the 2009 season to 261 this season.
Harrison was fined a total of $100,000, and he and other Steelers players have been highly critical of the league's approach. The criticism of the league was so intense at times that club president Art Rooney II said Tuesday he once feared the issue would affect the team's play.
"I was afraid it could be a distraction at times," Rooney said. "But our guys stuck together and did the best they could to get through it."
Harrison said Tuesday he has no problem with what the league is trying to accomplish but believes enforcement has been uneven. He cited the $75,000 fine he was assessed - later reduced by the league to $50,000 - for an October hit on Cleveland Browns wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi.
The "rule changes are good for the game," Harrison said. "But there are certain things that you're going to have to take into account when you see a guy hit someone. You can't just have a flat-out rule that says if you hit someone in the head, you get fined. . . . That's what it was with me and Massaquoi. He ducked his head to protect himself, and I lowered my target area and we ended up hitting shoulder to helmet. . . . They're saying that's my responsibility to re-adjust to the adjustment that he had made at the last second."
Harrison, who finished third in the balloting for the NFL defensive player of the year, said he wasn't trying to injure opponents and maintained he and the Steelers play defense the way it's supposed to be played. He said he's not worried about any long-term health risks associated with head injuries and is willing to accept the consequences of playing football, because of the financial rewards for his family. Harrison said he started a charitable foundation to benefit disabled children and their families and makes a matching donation to it whenever he's fined by the NFL.
He said the NFL enacts rules in its own financial interest, protecting marquee players such as quarterbacks, and is much less interested in safeguarding defensive players. Harrison said he changed his playing style for a game or two during the season but didn't like the results. He called a trip to New York to meet with NFL officials about the issue unproductive.
"You can change the way that you decide to hit someone if you have enough time to," Harrison said. "But the game happens so fast that most of the time it's a bang-bang play. You don't have time to adjust to the adjustments that guys make. Even when I went up there to talk to them, I said, 'So if I'm going to hit a receiver and he ducks his head at the last minute and we hit helmet to helmet, is that my fault?' They said, 'Yes, it's your fault. You will be fined.' "
Added Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward, "We're going to continue to play like we've always been playing, because if we don't, then we're cheating this team and cheating this organization by not going out there and playing our style of football."
Harrison threatened to retire at one point during the season but backed off that threat quickly.
"Not a lot was needed to be done with James other than maybe give him a day off and let it burn out like I knew it would, and it did," Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin said. "He's still James Harrison. And he still plays high-quality football, and I don't think that will change."