The NFL moved swiftly to resolve the Harbaugh-Schwartz fracas at Ford Field. The outcome suggests that the league wanted to swiftly sweep it all under the rug.
The dominant story from Sunday’s Week Six games would have gotten only bigger if the NFL had fined the coach of the 49ers or the coach of the Lions, or both, after Sunday’s embarrassing pushing-and-shoving incident. And so the league, more concerned about the short-term P.R. hit than bigger picture concepts of fairness, consistency, and most importantly the example set for all persons associated with football at every level, opted to wag a finger at the two men, extract a promise to behave going forward, and issue a warning that any further incidents will trigger punishment.
Whether or not an fists were swung shouldn’t matter. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told PFT on Sunday that a key issue will be whether and to what extent there was physical contact. Surely, there was, from both coaches.
For players, fines have been imposed for actual fights, before or during games. But players also get routinely fined for far less problematic conduct, like sending out tweets from the locker room or not wearing the right socks or playing the game too aggressively or accidentally grabbing someone’s facemask or celebrating in a way that the league deems inappropriate. How can the league fine players for that kind of behavior and not find a pair of Jims who were acting more like Hacksaw Jim Duggan?
Sunday’s incident occurred because the one on-field member of the 49ers who should be able to control his emotions failed, and he celebrated in a way that Jim Schwartz deemed inappropriate. Schwartz was right, and then he was wrong to chase Harbaugh down, shove him, and spark a full-blown brouhaha with a clumsy chase of Harbaugh, which at one point looked like it should have been accompanied by shouts of, “Hold me back! Hold me back!”
The NFL supposedly has sufficient concern regarding the sanctity of the shield that it will fine and suspend players who get in trouble on their own time. Currently, the league is trying to suspend Bengals running back Cedric Benson four games for something that happened at a time when the league had locked him out. To give that desire to protect the league’s image any credibility, the league’s only option was to punish the two coaches.
The decision to turn the page by not issuing any discipline sends a troubling message to the league’s players. Coaches are supposed to be held to a higher standard. In this case, they weren’t.
Meanwhile, more than a few players inevitably will be informed this week that they have been fined for actions that pale in comparison to the spectacle that Harbaugh and Schwartz created on Sunday.