Next to the Michael Vick redemption story, the next biggest storyline this NFL season has been the overwhelming amount of penalties and fines given out against defenders for potentially dangerous hits. Football is a violent game and the league hopes to curtail injuries, especially to its prized quarterbacks.
Steelers linebacker James Harrison has become the poster child for the league’s campaign. In the short span of 11 games, he has been fined four separate times for a total of $125,000. Harrison is by far the most frequent repeat offender in the NFL. But for all the publicity these fines have received, it seems they’ve made things worse, not better.
With each new fine, the opposition has publicly increased to greater levels of suspicion and animosity. Various players from around the league have voice their opposition. Harrison thinks he is a marked man and has even contemplated retirement. Goodell has become a common enemy within the Steelers. Normally soft-spoken Troy Polamalu has complained that the commission has too much power. Coach Mike Tomlin complained that “[Harrison's] got two kids. That’s some serious college schooling right there potentially for those kids 16, 18 years from now.” Even Steelers President Art Rooney thought that the fines are an overreaction.
I’m not saying that the NFL is wrong about the fines. Legally speaking, commissioner Roger Goodell has the power to enforce the rules how he sees fit. The question is, have they worked?
So far as I can tell, the new rules have had little affect on the field. The game isn’t safer to play, it’s just more expensive. Instead of changing how players play the game, the penalties have aroused nothing but complaints. Harrison himself has said that the fines have done nothing to change how he plays. If anything, he has become emboldened and now stubbornly refuses to change.
This is a classic example of what St. Paul said in Romans: “the law came in to increase the trespass” (5:20a). The penalties and fines imposed on players represent “the law” to them, since their violation results in punishment. Sure, the rules of the game provide the necessary parameters to promote player safety (the law is good), yet so far this has only reaped bitterness and frustration. The irony is that here the implementation of justice is received by the offender as injustice and bias.
To be clear: the Steelers reaction to the fines are not to be applauded or defended. As a player, they submit to the rules of the game and the structures in place to distribute penalties. As St. Paul says, the law induces sin (Romans 7:8).
Yet what is so often ignored is that the rebellion against the law demonstrates the law’s failure. Fines and penalties haven’t succeeded. There must be something else that breaks the cycle of punishment and resentment. Might there be another way?