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Steelers linebacker cuts through the hypocrisy

Full disclosure: I love watching Steelers linebacker James Harrison play football with all of his ferocity and passion and, yes, violence. I also believe he is right.

About the nature of football.

About the concussions.

And about the hypocrisy of the NFL and its fans.

"My style of play is how you are supposed to play the game," he told me Wednesday, not backing off an inch from his Media Day comments that had so tizzy-ed columnists because he dared to note that all of this safety talk is a big, fat show.

"If you want to get [the violence] totally out of the game, put flags on us," he said. "And we'll pull flags off each other and see how popular your game is then and how many are watching."

We do not actually want football to be safe. We want to pay lip service to wanting it to be safe. We want to be on record so when Colts receiver Austin Collie is lying on the ground motionless and our stomachs churn with genuine sadness, we can say with a clean conscience, "Wow, those hits are awful. You hate that."

But we don't. It is the essence of football and we love it.

What we hate is that sometimes guys do not bounce right up, or that ex-players years later find themselves hobbled or hurting or worse. But that, too, is football.

"The sport is a violent sport. That is what you guys don't understand," Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said. "If you think you can play football, come try out."

Many who want to dismiss Harrison as macho or stupid need to repeat after Ward. Football is violent. It is not player attitudes landing them on crutches. The ironic thing is Harrison gets it, really gets it. He believes the science behind concussions, understands the dangers. He says there is not a single guy in the league who thinks the concussion science is bogus or does not understand the dangers or has not seen the veterans.

"I am 32 years old, so I am not some young kid saying, 'I don't really care.' But you know that it is part of the risks of playing this game, and I am willing to accept it," Harrison said. "It's not touch football. It's physical contact. You are hitting and things happen. And that is one of the things that happens, you may come up with some long-term or later-on-down- the-line head injuries."

The statement that got Harrison in so much trouble on Media Day was about concussions. He dared to suggest what we already know, which is every week, somewhere in the NFL, somebody is playing with one.

"If a guy can make it through, he can make it through," Harrison said. "If you are out there on the field lying still, your right hand kicked up, yeah, you shouldn't be able to come back."

Reaction was quick and furious.

Ripped nationally and locally and almost uniformly.

Now ask yourself, was he wrong? And is this not exactly what we love about football, guys like Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers taking a vicious hit from Julius Peppers in the NFC Championship Game and staying in the game?

We praise this in NFL Films voice while fining guys like Harrison close to $125,000 and wonder why he's a little angry. And this idea of saving players from themselves is even richer.

NFL owners are playing a dangerous game of chicken at this moment, trying to paint themselves as kindly and benevolent bosses saving idiotic players from themselves with rule changes while also asking for two more regular-season games.

What I know for sure is nothing Harrison can do to a player coming across the middle is more dangerous for his health than two more real NFL games.

The whole 18-game schedule nonsense is the hot talking point in the impending labor throwdown between owners and players. It is a stupid idea on so many levels, but you get why the owners want it. They want more money. And this labor fight, more than anything we saw in baseball or hockey, is about greed. There is plenty of money to go around in the NFL. They are just fighting over who gets more of it.

Have fun, boys.

Just dial down that player safety talk while asking for 18 games. It is contradictory. And insulting. And wrong. We do not actually want football to be safe. We want to pay lip service for wanting it to be safe while fans watch and owners get richer off James Harrison playing the game exactly as we love it.

Passionate. Ferocious. And violent.

Jennifer Floyd Engel

817-390-7697

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