During a game in October 2010, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison launched himself into Cleveland Browns wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi, landing a square shot above the shoulders and giving Massaquoi a concussion.
At the time of the hit, which did not draw a penalty, the NFL was coming under increased scrutiny over its handling of head injuries: Members of Congress had scolded commissioner Roger Goodell during a hearing on the issue just a year earlier. Plus, Harrison was considered a repeat offender by the NFL that season, with an earlier penalty for unnecessary roughness, so the league levied a particularly high fine: $75,000, later reduced to $50,000 on appeal.
But during a recent appearance on Barstool Sports’ “Going Deep” podcast, Harrison hinted that Steelers coach Mike Tomlin may have softened the financial blow.
“The G-est thing Mike Tomlin ever did, he handed me an envelope” after the hit on Massaquoi, Harrison said. “I’m not going to say what, but he handed me an envelope after that.”
Harrison, who called the blow “a legal hit” after it happened in 2010, said on the podcast he was actually holding back when he launched himself into the defenseless wide receiver.
“Listen, on everything I love, on my daddy’s grave, I hit that man with about 50 percent of what I had, and I just hit him because I wanted him to let loose of the ball,” he said. “If I had knew they was going to fine me $75,000, I would have tried to kill him.”
Harrison’s admission could be problematic for the Steelers, who still are coached by Tomlin (Harrison retired after the 2017 season). NFL rules state that players must pay fines themselves and cannot be reimbursed by anyone associated with their team. Plus, in 2012 the NFL suspended New Orleans Saints Coach Sean Payton for one season — the most severe punishment ever handed down to a head coach — and punished numerous members of his coaching staff over the team’s bounty system, in which New Orleans players were financially rewarded for big hits and injuries caused to opposing players.
Payton never was accused of actually handing money to players. Instead, the NFL found that he was aware of the scheme, operated by his assistants, and tried to cover it up during the league's investigation.
Writing Friday on Instagram, Harrison said comparisons between his 2010 anecdote and the Saints‚ “Bountygate” scandal were inapt.
“Wow y’all really comparing what I said to BOUNTYGATE?!? Mike T. Has NEVER paid me for hurting someone or TRYING to hurt someone or put a bounty on ANYBODY!" Harrison wrote, claiming that the NFL was hypocritical in fining him when at the same the league also was trying to profit from the hit.
Soon after the 2010 game, Steelers president Art Rooney II declared his support for Harrison, saying it was “a legal hit” though it also was “on the borderline.” On Thursday, however, he said that Harrison’s claim that Tomlin gave him “an envelope” was not to be believed.
“I am very certain nothing like this ever happened,” Rooney said in a statement. “I have no idea why James would make a comment like this but there is simply no basis for believing anything like this.”
Asked about Harrison’s comments Thursday during an interview with 105.7 the Fan, Payton said fans “shouldn’t hold their breath” for the league to investigate.
“That’ll be something that’s tucked away or under the rug at [NFL headquarters in New York],” Payton said. “They’ll look into it briefl. . . . Listen, don’t get me started on that. I lost $6 million in salary. And honestly it was something that I’ll never truly get over because I know how it was handled and how it was run and the reasons behind it. And that’s just the truth.”