Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney II, concerned that the NFL has crossed a boundary in its push for player safety, has been advocating for Steelers linebacker James Harrison behind closed doors, according to Friday's Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Rooney is concerned that his aggressive defense, and Harrison in particular, have been targeted by the league.
"It certainly looks that way," Rooney told the newspaper. "Not that we're expecting much sympathy from other teams, but I think some of this will be part of the discussion after the season is over. Hopefully we'll all have our chances to express our opinions and at that point have a better understanding of where the owners in the league stand on some of this.
"I think we're sympathetic to the idea that we need to focus on player safety and particularly on helmet-to-helmet hits. The other side of it is it's still a football game, and I think we've got to be realistic about how the rules can be changed and what we expect of the defensive players in particular."
Ray Anderson, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations, responded to several Steelers players' claims that the league is targeting the team in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Thursday.
"I would say that's misguided and, frankly, completely untrue," Anderson said when asked if the Steelers are being targeted. "Every team and every player, hopefully, will have the confidence that, if they play within the rules, we won't have this problem."
Anderson and NFL assistant director of operations Merton Hanks, a former player, are in charge of levying fines, and they've had Harrison on speed-dial lately.
Harrison was fined $25,000 this week for a helmet-leading hit on Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, running the linebacker's tab this season to $125,000 for four separate violations of the league's policy on illegal hits.
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"It angers me, of course, that they're taking absurd amounts of money from me for plays that I consider to be clean and legal hits," Harrison said Wednesday. "I'm sure if you asked 10 guys in the league, nine of them would say he's not a dirty player. He's a hard player. He's just getting a bad (reputation) right now."
Rooney acknowledged he has been in consistent contact with the NFL since Harrison's fines began. He also told the Tribune-Review that his father Dan Rooney, the Steelers chairman emeritus and the U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, has reached out to the league.
"I think he shares some of the concerns we have," Rooney said of his father. "I'm sure the conversation he's having are between him and the league, and that's the way they should be kept."
Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward lashed out at the NFL on Wednesday for what he calls its hypocritical stance on player safety, arguing that the league only recently toughened its policy because it wants to expand to an 18-game season.
"The league doesn't care about us anyway," said Ward, a 13-year veteran and the leading receiver in Steelers history. "They don't care about the safety of the game. If the league was so concerned about the safety, why are you adding two more games on? You talk about you don't want players to drink ... and all you see is beer commercials. You don't want us to gamble, but then there are (NFL-endorsed lottery scratch-off games)."
Some Steelers' defensive players assert that the NFL's top priority is to protect the quarterback.
"(Such claims) have been something that's been going on since Jack Lambert said we should put skirts on them," Rooney told the Tribune-Review. "Maybe we've taken more steps down that road. And again, that's been one of our concerns, is how far are we going with some of this? Protecting the quarterback, particularly the hit to the head kind of situation, is something we're in favor of. Of course, the other side of it is, you get to the point where are you still allowed to tackle the quarterback? I don't know."
Rooney also touched on Steelers safety Troy Polamalu's comments earlier this season that Commissioner Roger Goodell possesses too much power in the area of player discipline.
"If you look down through the years, our league has benefited from having a system where we've had a commissioner that was a very powerful office," Rooney said. "I'm not necessarily looking to dramatically change that in any way. The fact we've had a system where our commissioner has kind of been 'the buck stops' and that's where the power is in the league ... overall, I'm satisfied that's the way it should be."