"It was like a bad B movie," says 49ers linebacker Takeo Spikes. "Guys were booing, throwing stuff at the screen. They were mad. You heard stuff like, 'Did this guy ever play?!'" (Anderson was a receiver and kick returner at Stanford.)
It's a time of high emotion in the NFL. Countless players in the last week, mostly defenders, said they felt they're being unfairly singled out for discipline. They say that because things happen so quickly on the field, it is extremely difficult for them to avoid inflicting crushing helmet-to-helmet hits. Even when a tackler aims at a ballcarrier's chest, the offensive player often ducks to miss the contact, and the result is helmet-to-helmet. What's more, defensive players argue that they are invariably blamed for such hits even when it is the receiver who turns to run aggressively upfield, lowers his head and initiates the contact.
"It's a sad day for the sport," said Steelers safety Ryan Clark, a union representative and one of the game's hardest hitters. "The league has made James Harrison a villain for playing exactly the way he played to earn the Defensive Player of the Year award [in 2008]. I think what we're seeing is a knee-jerk reaction to the result of the hits, not a thoughtful reaction to the reality of the hits."
Even the Players Association was angry about what seemed to be an attempt to make the game safer. "The skirts need to be taken off in the NFL offices," said union president Kevin Mawae on ESPN Radio.
The battle comes down to this: players who believe you can't legislate the violence out of pro football versus executives who believe you have to try. Can the NFL continue to be king of American sports if it's a kinder, gentler game? Will families, scared by the viciousness they see every weekend, send more of their eight-year-olds out for soccer in the fall than for Pop Warner football? Will the game, as author Malcolm Gladwell suggests, become one played mainly by members of the underclass, or fall from grace the way boxing did when the brutality became too much?
What motivated the league was a near-perfect storm of viciousness two weekends ago. Within 24 hours at the New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., Rutgers defensive tackle Eric LeGrand suffered a severe spinal-cord injury while making a tackle on a kickoff return (page 46), and Lions linebacker Zack Follett lay motionless on the turf after a big hit against the Giants. LeGrand remains hospitalized, his prognosis unknown; Follett was released from the hospital after overnight observation.
There was more. Meriweather nailed Heap gratuitously in the head with his helmet. Harrison delivered a forearm to the head of Massaquoi, who seemed to duck to avoid the shot. Another defenseless wideout, DeSean Jackson of the Eagles, took a blow to the upper body and had to be helped off the field. All the shots were take-your-breath-away violent. Watching in the NBC viewing room in New York City, studio analyst Rodney Harrison, known as much for his vicious hits as for his overall strong play at safety, said after one of them, "Thank God I'm retired."
The players collectively shrugged: That's football. "It's what makes the game so popular," argues veteran Cowboys linebacker Keith Brooking, his voice rising. "People love the battle! People love the violence!"
But the league wasn't backing down, and in the coming weeks it's likely that a hit that two weeks ago would have resulted in a $15,000 fine—for example, the brutal Oct. 3 helmet-to-helmet shot by Cleveland safety T.J. Ward on Bengals receiver Jordan Shipley—will draw a suspension.
"If we get criticized for this, and I'm sure we will, then so be it," said Anderson. "We've got to protect players from themselves, and we're going to move aggressively to do so."