NFL to punish teams for flagrant hits

INDIANAPOLIS -- The NFL will punish teams next season if their players commit multiple flagrant hits that result in fines.

The punishment will be financial, although league vice president Adolpho Birch said Tuesday he didn't rule out commissioner Roger Goodell applying further sanctions such as stripping clubs of draft choices.

Citing the "notion of club accountability," Birch said details such as the amount of the fines against clubs, or how many player fines would trigger punishment, have not been determined.

"As a club's total increases to a certain threshold, we will enforce some ... payback to encourage clubs to stay below that threshold," Birch said. "We're looking at a system similar to one we instituted a couple years ago with off-field conduct."

The NFL began a crackdown on illegal hits, particularly those to defenseless players, last October. It threatened suspensions, but no players had to sit out games. However, Ray Anderson, the league's chief disciplinarian, has said suspensions will be considered for egregious hits this season.

Now, clubs as well as the players are being put on notice that illegal hits will result in substantial discipline.

Birch would not identify which teams from 2010 would have been subject to fines had the policy been in place, but did say at least three teams might have been punished. One player, Pittsburgh All-Pro linebacker James Harrison, was fined $100,000 for flagrant hits last season.

"We'll check the number of fines and the level of fines going out for infractions that relate to various player safety violations," Birch said. "Particularly head and helmet issues."

Harrison expressed his displeasure with the rule changes on his twitter account Tuesday.

"I'm absolutely sure now after this last rule change that the people making the rules at the NFL are idiots," Harrison said.

The 32 owners voted unanimously Tuesday to approve rules amendments for player safety, including a measure aimed at keeping a player from launching himself into a defenseless opponent. A 15-yard penalty will result for anyone who leaves both feet before contact to spring forward and upward into an opponent and delivers a blow to the helmet with any part of his helmet.

Such tackles will also be subject to fines.

The definition of a defenseless receiver already has been extended. Now, a receiver who has not had time to protect himself or has not clearly become a runner even if both feet are on the ground is considered defenseless.

Defenseless players cannot be hit in the head or neck area with the helmet, face mask, forearm or shoulder. The definition of such players now includes those throwing a pass; attempting or completing a catch without having time to ward off or avoid contact; a runner whose forward progress has been stopped by a tackler; kickoff or punt returners while the ball is in the air; kickers or punters during a kick or a return; a quarterback during a change of possession; a player who receives a blindside block from a blocker moving toward his own end zone.

Penalized players are subject to being ejected for flagrant fouls.

"This should permanently change the mentality of a defensive player trying to loosen the ball to change your target point," said competition committee co-chairman Rich McKay, president of the Atlanta Falcons.

Also, hits to the head of a passer that are not considered "forcible" blows will not be penalized.

"We are not saying to take the physicality out of the game in any way, shape or form," McKay said. "There are still lots of hits that are legal."

Separately, the owners were "comprehensively" briefed on the labor situation, NFL lead negotiator Jeff Pash said. Those briefings took up the entire afternoon.

But Pash reiterated that no contingency plans for a shortened season were discussed.

"Our contingency plan, first, last and ongoing," he said, "is to negotiate an agreement with the players association. So any opening of training camps is based on a collectively bargained agreement."

Colts owner Jim Irsay said something needs to be in place by July 4 to avoid jeopardizing the regular season. Irsay estimated a $1 billion loss in revenues if that doesn't happen.

"If you miss those preseason games, or a game or two (of the regular schedule), or start late," Irsay said, "you have lost significant money, in excess of $1 billion."

On Tuesday, a 44-member group of businessmen and politicians filed an amicus brief supporting the players' side. The brief said a prolonged lockout will result in jobs being lost and government budgets being short. The group includes state lawmakers, city council members and pub owners from Washington to Texas.

The filing argues that players and owners aren't the only parties with something to lose in the labor dispute. They say local governments rely on NFL games for tax revenue and economic stimulus. Stadium workers and pub owners depend on the games for jobs.

Next month's rookie symposium became the first league event called off because of the lockout on Tuesday when the league axed the annual event.

"We waited as long as we possibly could," Birch said. "The rookie symposium is an extremely large, complex event that requires a lot of people from an attendance standpoint. Based on the uncertainty in the labor situation, it's to the point we needed to be fair to those who would come to help us put it on."

The symposium, which was to begin June 26 in Canton, Ohio, instructs rookies in money management and life skills and allows them to meet current and former players.

Teams and their draftees have not been allowed to communicate since the NFL gained a stay in court upholding the lockout. The league's appeal of an injunction lifting it will be heard in U.S. District Court on June 3.

Birch also confirmed that using the World Anti-Doping Agency to administer the league's drug policy is a possibility.

"From a procedural standpoint, we need to look at those options. That would be one option," he said. "We are certainly looking into that to see what that means for us and to see what that does to advance the idea that the NFL remains the leader in this area. What that means, we'll find out, but we are going to take a look at it."

Information from The Associated Press contributed to this report.