By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com senior columnist
(CBS) No league that purports to care about the safety of its players can keep allowing Brandon Meriweather the opportunity to hunt innocent heads.
This is beyond ridiculous now, with the unrepentant Washington safety now facing discipline for his sixth violation of league rules regarding unnecessary roughness to defenseless players, again using his helmet as a weapon. The latest victim was Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith, and Meriweather earned a two-game wrist-slap from the same commissioner who finds every opportunity to tell players, fans and youth-football moms that he’s all about making the game less hazardous.
As long as Meriweather plays, he’s going to try to for illegal kill-shots. As long as he plays, he’s going to make Roger Goodell look like a clown.
The NFL Players Association is on the hook here, too, with an equal investment in improving their workplace. They also should recognize that one of their own is a menace who puts their members at risk, and they must act to the extent that they can.
It’s completely fair to ask why six violations is enough to reach this conclusion and not, say, five. Or three. My only answer is that by this point in time, the NFL has never been more strident in its insistence that it takes players’ health concerns so seriously.
There’s Goodell spending $45 million on the laughable fraud that is “Heads-Up Football,” a program that exists to mollify appropriately frightened parents and provide PR cover for the league. Turn on any game and see all the money Goodell has spent on an ad campaign aimed directly at African-American moms, telling them that it’s never been a better time to let their kid play football. The handsome black actor dressed as a doctor in the fake laboratory smiles and talks about helmet technology, so everything’s fine.
Then it’s back from commercial break in time to see Brandon Meriweather bruise another brain on purpose.
Meriweather isn’t just careless or out of control, he’s openly defiant. Instead of learning a lesson after his suspension last year, he said the rules gave him new motivation.
“I guess I just got to take people’s knees out,” he said. “You just have to go low now, man. You’ve got to end people’s careers. You got to tear people’s ACLs and mess up people’s knees.”
He is his generation’s Andre Waters, a similarly dirty safety who faced multiple fines and penalties for illegal hits while taking perverse pride in his reputation as an on-field outlaw. Waters terrorized football for 10 years, then put a bullet in his head at age 44 after suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy. A real image for Goodell to use in that TV promo is that of Dr. Bennet Omalu, slicing up the remaining chunks of Waters’ brain to determine that it had degenerated into that of an 85-year-old man.
NFL football will – and should – remain a brutal contest of high-impact collisions that carries inherent risk of injury. By its very nature, there will be borderline hits and overzealous application of rules that were designed to protect players from needless violence beyond the scope of the game.
But Meriweather is in no such gray area and probably never was. Far from zero tolerance, this is too tolerant. It’s the sixth incident, and it’s time to make sure it’s the last.
Goodell and the NFLPA can make an unambiguous statement that multiple failures to heed league directives on dirty play – particularly involving an established pattern of helmet-to-helmet attacks — can constitute a forfeiture of the right to play.
As football itself faces an increasing existential reckoning, purging its ranks of a clear and present danger would seem like an easy, obvious call.