OK, James Harrison sacking Bruce Gradkowski was a "tackling while James Harrison" call. We will start there. It's a reasonable call as a penalty, but I don't think it gets called as instantaneously as it was if Roger Goodell hadn't designated dude as the poster boy for excessive violence in NFL tackling. It cost the Steelers a touchdown which, thankfully, was a drop in the bucket in a rout, but that's not the point.
This isn't like a sketchy holding call or a vague case of pass interference, where the penalized act directly caused the touchdown. Gradkowski heard footsteps; it was Harrison running full speed at him that made him rush his throw and put the ball in Ike Taylor's hands. Whether Harrison tackles dude or not is beside the point. He could have hit some wormhole and jumped to an alternate universe like Jerry O'Connell right before contact and it still would have been a pick-six. As Steelers fans, me and GW9K have talked about this before: it's the sheer terror that dudes like Harrison (and, before him, Ray Lewis and Larry Csonka, to name a couple) evoke that make them great linebackers. It's psychological.
Old territory: the NFL is your average abusive American corporation treating its workers exactly as badly as they can get away with. And that sets the bar pretty low, because most of the employees are getting payed millions of dollars to play a game they love, and many come from what we will call modest means. The players themselves don't love the new caution, and we watched Hines Ward bitch about being pulled from last week's game with a concussion he insisted he would have soldiered on with two years ago.
Don't get me wrong, I'm happy to see this push for more safety. Football takes years off lives. The brain trauma can make you demented in your 60's. Junior Seau drives off a cliff and it's impossible to not wonder if this lapse in reasoning is related to his 15 years of running into shit for a living. But fining James Harrison once a week doesn't solve that problem. Former (occasional?) NFL-er Nate Jackson made all the crucial points in the NYT. We're a few traumatic injuries to marquee players away from the NFL even considering real change.
No, the Harrison witchhunt is a PR campaign to make Goodell look like his company cares about the safety of its players. And the target isn't football fans, who are basically going to keep watching no matter what happens. It's aimed at anyone who is turned off by the violence in the sport (and thus might be less likely to pay money for anything NFL related). We're talking queasy girlfriends and my brother.
And that's really fucked up! Because what that means is this is about is not the safety of the players as much as it's about the NFL seizing an a controversy to attract new fans by expressing grave concern that their violent sport is actually dangerous. It's the opposite of progress, some weird bizarro kayfabe where bad press and marketing affect the flow of the sport. It's the kind of conspiracy shit people point to when explaining how the NBA is rigged. It's the football equivalent of writing Kaitlin Olson's pregnancy into the plot of Always Sunny.