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Reed's criticism of NFL again reflects football's safety dilemma

BALTIMORE -- After another nasty game in the nastiest rivalry in pro sports, Ed Reed stood in the Baltimore Ravens' locker room, the last player left, and he dished out a few final hits.

"All of a sudden, the NFL is starting to get sued for all the stuff they haven't protected over the years, and they haven't done ... now you want to take it out on us?" Reed asked. "Take it out on yourself. It's easy for them to do the things they're doing, fining us and make us look bad, like we're the bad guy, when we're not.

"If they were really so concerned about the violence and the injuries, players getting hurt, answer this question for me ... why is there Thursday Night Football?" Reed asked. "We played three games in 17 days. Why is there Thursday Night Football? Come on, man."

There is Thursday Night Football for one reason: Money. Reed knows it. Anybody watching knows it. It is hypocritical and wrong, a simple part of a complex problem.

Roger Goodell's league is caught between its reckless past and its multi-billion-dollar present. Former players are suing, saying the NFL failed to protect them. Some current players believe the league is more concerned with the appearance of improving safety than actually improving player safety. Reed is apparently one of them.

What set him off? It wasn't the loss to to the Steelers. It was Reed's recent one-game suspension for a hit in the last Ravens-Steelers game two weeks ago. Reed actually won the appeal of his suspension, but it still bothered him. Executive vice president of football operations Ray Anderson said at the time, "We cannot tolerate repeated violations of rules, especially rules related to player safety." Anderson said that again in an ESPN radio interview: Reed is a repeat offender. Reed did not like the implication.

"It was crazy for the wording they were using: Malicious," Reed said. "I'm a malicious player ... Ray Anderson talking about (how) I'm a dirty player. After 11 years, now I'm dirty? Serious, man?

"That hurt me, man," Reed said. "It hurt me because for one, my kid is going to grow up and see that. My parents see that and they're like, 'Is this my son? For real?' "

Where do we draw the lines here? Former players are suffering from dementia, memory loss and frightening levels of depression. As soon as Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher committed murder-suicide Saturday morning, people speculated that he suffered brain damage from playing football. It is way too early to even guess at that. We may never know. But if it's true, it won't be a new story.

In the meantime, Ed Reed is being demonized. The NFL has also been demonized. There is a thin line between loving this game and being horrified by it.

"It's a kid's sport," Reed said. "We're just grown men playing it now. We're not out there trying to hurt someone."

And with those three sentences, he captured our nation's football dilemma.

***

The Ravens and Steelers did their usual thing here Sunday. It was either vicious and wrong or vicious and beautiful, depending on how you see football today. The Steelers won by a field goal, because somebody always wins Ravens-Steelers games by a field goal. It's that kind of rivalry, dominated by defenses and power running.

"When it comes down to it," Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison said afterward, "we believe, they believe, that the most physical team is going to win the game."

That used to be a cliché. What is it now? In five years, will players be able to say the most physical team will win the game? Do we want the most physical team to win anymore?

Reed said of the league: "They're trying to take, not the physical play out of it ... but kind of, they want a powder-puff thing, to where you can just run around and score points, because that's going to attract fans. And I understand you want to make money."

Hey, almost everybody wants to make money. But players who just want money usually don't last long in the NFL. They have to embrace the pain. They must love getting hit.

For all the talk about making the game safer for players, that's the thing people miss: So many great players like the violence. This doesn't mean they like getting hurt. Nobody likes that. But they like the hitting. They like getting beaten up on behalf of their teammates.

"If I didn't like it," Harrison said, "I wouldn't do it."

He proved it Sunday. Harrison had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in August. He did not play in September. The knee is probably still bothering him. But there he was Sunday, frequently lined up against Ravens left tackle Michael Oher in the first half, and he kept bull-rushing relentlessly.

"It's always about testing yourself against another player," Harrison said. "Whose will is going to outlast the other guy's? Whose will is going to dominate the other guy's?"

There are other ways to try to get to the quarterback. Bull-rushing had to put more pressure on his knee. But James Harrison does not play football because it's easy. He plays it to dominate the other guy's will. And he wanted to set Oher up -- he thought if he kept bull-rushing, Oher would get too aggressive, and then Harrison could speed-rush around Oher and get to the Ravens' Joe Flacco.

Sure enough, in the fourth quarter, Harrison sped around Oher, hit Flacco and caused a fumble. It may have been the biggest play of the game. Harrison made it because he was so willing to endure pain. Does he like the pain? Well, put it this way: He likes fighting through pain for his team.

I asked him if he'll miss hitting people after he retires, and he said, "I don't think I'll miss the contact. I think I'll miss my teammates more than I'll miss anything else. Even when I was done playing college ball and didn't know if I was going to be able to go anywhere else, the thing I missed the most was the trips, the locker room, just being around the guys."

A kids' sport.

***

Ed Reed said he could have talked about this for hours. It bothers him that deeply. This is, in many ways, his life's work. Is it not honest work?

"Football is the most violent sport ... for years," he said. "You know it's a little violent. You have to police the violence. I understand that! Let us play football."

Can he still play football, the way he defines playing football? Or does the threat of a suspension affect the way he plays?

"It affects me, man," Reed said. "I thought about it coming into this game. Obviously, it happened the last time we played. I've got a lot of respect for those guys, but this game is always played differently than most games."

Reed is a bright man. He knows all about concussions and brain injuries.

"It's going to affect me a lot too, by getting hit helmet to helmet, of course," he said. "I talk to my doctor about that."

But still ... let us play football. That's what kids around this country tell their parents every August: Come on, mom, let me play football. With everything we know about brain injuries, a lot of parents are hesitant. I hope my son never asks.

Throughout this game, like every other NFL game, we kept getting injury updates in the press box: Ike Taylor is out for the game ... The injured player for Pittsburgh is Wallace. NFL coaches are the only ones who open their postgame press conferences, after every game, with an injury update.

Players always get hurt. Everybody understands. If you watched an NFL game up close, you would be astounded by the level of brutality. Television does not fully capture it. You might wonder why any sane man would put himself through this.

***

Last week, I talked to former Steelers star Hines Ward about the Steelers-Ravens rivalry, and he said "I always compare it to a UFC fight. You got two bullies going into a cage, the baddest bully comes out."

At one point, Ward started talking about Reed. In the offseason, Reed talked about retiring. Ward said he never bought the retirement talk, not for a second.

"You look at this team, you have a great opportunity," Ward said. "Why would you still leave the game?"