- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 20, 2010

NEW YORK (AP) - NFL players are wondering what’s happening to their game.

One day after the league said it will begin suspending players for illegal hits, many players were asking if this still is pro football.

“We’re going to be playing flag football in about five years,” Cowboys linebacker Bradie James said Wednesday.

Baltimore Ravens star Ray Lewis echoed those thoughts.

“My opinion is play the game like that game is supposed to be played, and whatever happens, happens,” said Lewis, among the most physical linebackers the game has known. “If you go into the game thinking about any of that stuff, I’m telling you, the game will be diluted very quickly.”

The NFL imposed huge fines on three players _ Pittsburgh’s James Harrison, Atlanta’s Dunta Robinson and New England’s Brandon Meriweather _ on Tuesday for dangerous and flagrant hits last weekend and warned that, starting with this week’s games, violent conduct will be cause for suspension.

“You look at the James Harrision hit, all these hits, whatever they may be, the bottom line is those are hits that you go into your defensive room and you’re getting praised for,” Lewis added. “Because that’s the way the game of football is supposed to be played.”

Except, according to the rules, when players are launching themselves at defenseless opponents, often leading with their heads even when the direct contact is not made by the helmet. Shoulders and forearms to the head also are illegal, and the league is ratcheting up punishment for offenders.

By doing so, though, is the NFL stripping the game of the inherent violence that makes it America’s most popular sport, with soaring television ratings and strong attendance.

“There is still going to be great collisions … it’s still going to be a physical game,” said Eagles coach Andy Reid, who witnessed firsthand the brutal collision between Robinson and Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson on Sunday that left both players with concussions. “We just have to eliminate that helmet as a weapon; that son of a gun is pretty hard material right there. If we could just get that out of the picture there on some of the shots, I think that’s all the league is asking for.”

Some players think the NFL is asking for something much more difficult: a complete change in playing style. Not surprisingly, defensive players are most critical.

“What they’re trying to say _ ‘We’re protecting the integrity’ _ no, you’re not,” Bears cornerback Charles Tillman said. “It’s ruining the integrity. It’s not even football anymore. We should just go out there and play two-hand touch Sunday if we can’t make contact.”

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