Starr Gazing: 'Boom. And I Hit Him'

America is a reactive society, not a proactive one. We wait for a crisis and then maybe, just maybe, try to resolve it. It took a disputed presidential election to bring about ballot reform and a terrible terrorist attack to launch a dedicated battle against Osama bin Laden.

Then there's the sports world. If enough young pitchers are hurt by rocket blasts off aluminum bats, some school associations belatedly move to ban them, as Massachusetts just did. When a young girl in Columbus, Ohio, dies, the unlucky victim of a stray puck fired into the stands, the NHL protects itself and its fans by putting up protective netting. Now there is a crisis brewing in the NFL, and it's a shame that the league appears willing to wait for a tragedy before it does something about it. And make no mistake about it, that tragedy is coming.

For the second week in a row, a player has been carried off the football field strapped to a gurney after a violent and gratuitously violent hit. Two weeks ago, it was Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox; last Sunday, Packers lineman Chad Clifton. In both cases, the downed players initially had no feeling in their limbs. Both are expected to recover, though it isn't clear when either will take the field again. What is clear is that the NFL should move immediately to ban the sort of sadistic play that our culture celebrates and which the NFL profits from with its highlight mania and the smashmouth video games it licenses.

Everybody who saw Warren Sapp's hit on Clifton--and, of course, we got to see it from every possible angle at every conceivable speed--understands that, under current NFL rules, it was legal. At the same time, it was the very definition of unnecessary roughness as well as the perfect illustration of a cheap shot. Clifton was chasing far behind a play and was helpless when Sapp picked him off from his blindside. Clifton's injuries--torn hip ligaments, internal bleeding and possible spinal damage--are, at the very least, season ending. Sapp, following the game and a verbal confrontation with Green Bay coach Mike Sherman, admitted he targeted Clifton with a full recognition of what a devastating blow it was likely to be. "I was a heat-seeking missile," Sapp said. "Boom, boom, boom--and I hit him."

Even if Sapp, one of my favorite players for the joyous way he embraces the game, had not been so candid, his actions on the field later in the same game were revealing. Another Tampa Bay interception gave Sapp a second chance to wreak havoc as blocker. But this time, when he could have plowed quarterback Brett Favre into the ground--and with justification because it would have assured a touchdown--he took mercy on his rival and pal and ran right past him without so much as a love tap. Sherman's indignant march on Sapp may have been foolishness, but the Green Bay coach got it 100 percent right in his post-game remarks on the Clifton hit. "It bothers me," he said. "And I think it should bother the game of football as well."

Of course, the standard disclaimer: we all know that football is a particularly dangerous game. And we know the NFL has, in fact, taken some righteous steps toward curbing the violence, particularly when it comes to protecting its pocketbook...uh, I mean its quarterbacks. Quarterback turned Sunday Night Football guru Joe Theisman, having suffered one of the most stomach-turning injuries ever in prime time, may have earned the right to disdain today's ticky tacky roughing calls on behalf of the quarterback. But his nostalgia is misplaced. The league can't do enough to protect the quarterbacks; already five legitimate Super Bowl contenders--St. Louis, Philadelphia, Denver, Miami and Pittsburgh--have lost quarterbacks to injury; a couple of those teams have already had two QBs go down.

Sapp's intentions, sinister or not, are firmly rooted in NFL tradition. They weren't appreciably different than those of Chuck Bednarik, who, in one of the most famous hits in NFL history, laid out Giants star Frank Gifford in 1960, knocking him senseless and out of football for an entire year. But yesteryear is increasingly irrelevant to this debate. Sapp is essentially a different species than Bednarik or other football players of his generation. Bednarik was a 230-pound linebacker, ferocious but something of a plodder. Sapp, though he's listed at 303 lbs, is probably upwards of 330 and runs unconscionably fast for a man his size. Bigger, stronger and swifter is a potentially lethal combination.

Longtime New England Patriots fans here in my hometown understand this better than most. It was back in 1978 that a terrific young Pats receiver named Darryl Stingley ran into the crosshairs of a hard-hitting Raiders defensive back and notorious cheap-shot artist who called himself "Assassin." Jack Tatum pulverized an open and exposed Stingley, who was running a crossing pattern in an exhibition game, breaking his neck. Stingley remains paralyzed from the neck down. Last season Patriots fans witnessed another near-horror when Drew Bledsoe, leveled along the sideline by Jets linebacker Mo Lewis, was rushed to the hospital with internal bleeding.

Those two situations, along with Sapp's, represent the trinity of the legally lethal: receivers crossing over the middle; ball carriers on the verge of stepping out of bounds; and offensive players trailing behind the play after a turnover. They are hardly the only dangerous situations on the football field, but they are often among the most gratuitously so. They are designed to administer punishment more than anything else. And the simple solution is to make the most gratuitous of them--when the receiver is outstretched for a ball five feet over his head or a scrambling quarterback is one inch from stepping out of bounds--illegal. Unnecessary roughness, personal foul, 15 yards--the officials' judgment call on the field backed up by the NFL's videotape police with their full array of suspension powers.

Folks who like the NFL just like it is, or even more as it once was, will protest that it's impossible to ask these athletes to hold back on their hits. But the truth is that we already ask sensational players to do things that boggle our minds. New rules or rule interpretations--the high strike in Major League baseball, the zone defense in the NBA, or the interference call in NHL--are adopted in many sports. Players reprogram themselves and adjust. Football players are capable of the discipline that requires them to settle for a firm shove on the sidelines or to pass up the devastating block on someone trailing 20 yards behind the play.

I will always remember what Jack Tatum said after the game in which Stingley was hurt. "What could I do?" he asked. "Injuries happen." They certainly do. And they always will. But the NFL knows exactly what it can do to cut down on the likelihood of a lethal attack. Because when that tragic injury inevitably comes and the league asks, "What could we do?" the only conscionable answer will be "Absolutely everything possible."