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NFL Treats Hard Hits With A Light Touch


Know what gets me through the week? The chance to say, time for sports!


SIMON: Football season is back with a kathunk(ph). Plus, the first two teams have qualified for the Major League Baseball playoffs, and the WMBA playoffs are on. NPR's Tom Goldman joins us. Good morning, Tom.


SIMON: Thanks so much for being with us.

GOLDMAN: A pleasure.

SIMON: Let's begin with the story of Tampa Bay defensive back Dashon Goldson - because he was suspended when the week began, right? But he's going to play against New England tomorrow.

GOLDMAN: That's exactly right. He was suspended for a helmet-to-helmet hit on New Orleans running back Darren Sproles, but he appealed and, as you mention, the suspension was overturned. And that has prompted cries of hypocrisy. The league talks tough - tough for me - about controlling the mayhem, especially when it comes to head injuries. Now, here's a guy - Goldson - with more personal fouls than any NFL player since 2010. In announcing the suspension, an NFL official said it was clear Goldson lowered his head and unnecessarily rammed the side of his helmet into the side of Sproles' head; illegal contact that clearly should have been avoided. But still, an appeals officer - agreed to by both the NFL and the NFL Players Association - overturned the suspension.

SIMON: Well, if players aren't penalized for this kind of cheap hit - cheap, I don't want to call it - dangerous hit, how does the league expect to fulfill their own mandate to reduce those kinds of hits and injuries?

GOLDMAN: That's the question of the week. Goldson was punished. He was fined $130,000 - $100,000 for the hit on Sproles, $30,000 for a hit earlier in the season. Now, that's considered a hefty amount. That is a hefty amount, I would say, for you and me but for Goldson, he signed a $41 million contract with the Bucks during the off-season, $22 million of that guaranteed. Not sure there's much of a deterrent effect there.

SIMON: Yeah, the cost of doing business. I mean, it seems like no matter what the commissioner says, things remain the same. When Devon Hester of the Bears returns a kick, my heart is in my mouth. I think you know this, Tom. I wanted to name our youngest daughter Devin, when she came into our lives. That's how much I think of Devin Hester, but there's something in the culture here, isn't there?

GOLDMAN: And by the way, I think it was a little insensitive to go ahead and name her Ditka.


SIMON: It's a great name for a little girl, for a 6-year-old, yeah.

GOLDMAN: That's your and your wife's choice, but...

SIMON: Our daughters are named Ditka and Sayers, but go ahead, yes.

GOLDMAN: (Laughter) And no favorites, right?

SIMON: Right.

GOLDMAN: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said this week the culture is changing. In fact, you know, you mentioned kickoffs. Rules changes on that particular play have increased the safety there significantly. The NFL says total fines for illegal hits have declined 32 percent since 2009. Players are adjusting to new rules, the NFL says, and tackling techniques to minimize headshots and hits on defenseless players. So the culture is changing, Goodell said. But he added, it doesn't change over night.

SIMON: Well, the culture's changing. What about -hat is it Patrick Willis, of the 49ers, said this week?

GOLDMAN: Oh, right. Willis this week advocated head-to-head hits - like rams, he said. You know, this is the kind of statement that makes Goodell tear out his hair, but Willis said this to make a point. Hits above the shoulders, he said, are preferable to the low cut blocks that can injure a player's knees or ankles. Now he said this after a teammate suffered a season-ending ankle injury last Sunday because of a cut block.

It's a concern, especially for big defensive linemen, who are usually the recipients of these below-the-knee cut blocks - which are legal. They don't get near the attention concussions do. Some say they should.

SIMON: Other football news - I have to ask, the Cleveland Browns looked like they were on the road to improvement this year, but they traded away their marquee player, Trent Richardson. He was the third overall draft pick just a year ago. They traded him to Indianapolis this week for a No. 1 draft pick. Are they trying to lose games? I mean that quite sincerely.

GOLDMAN: It only seems that way. Management has its reasons. The Browns are stockpiling draft choices. This adds another key one. Indianapolis gave up a first-rounder next year so they can seriously upgrade the Browns; translation, get a good quarterback. But Scott, it is extreme to get rid of your best offensive weapon, a top running back, just after two games.

I mean, all well and good to plan for the future, but what about the 14 games left this season? If Browns fans are upset - and you can bet, many are - maybe they can drown their sorrows at Cleveland Indians games. The Indians are in the thick of baseball's wild-card chase, and they're not drawing anything. They rank 28th in attendance out of 30 teams.

SIMON: Yeah, well there's plenty of room in the stands. So quickly, who do you like - the Indiana Fever, or the Chicagoans, for the WNBA championship?

GOLDMAN: Oh poor Chicago Sky. In their first WNBA playoff game last night, they lost to the defending champion Fever, even though Elena Delle Donne was named Rookie of the Year and Sylvia Fowles, Defensive Player of the Year. Indiana's looking good. Chicago has to win two straight, to stay alive.

SIMON: Yeah, OK. Easy, OK? We can do that. NPR's Tom Goldman, thanks so much for being with us.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome.


SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.