NEW YORK – Ray Lewis is worried about what's happening to his sport.
The Baltimore linebacker who epitomizes hard hits in the NFL fears that the league is stripping away the inherent violence and "the game will be diluted very quickly."
"My opinion is play the game like that game is supposed to be played, and whatever happens happens," Lewis said Wednesday about the NFL's decision to crack down on dangerous and flagrant hits.
The NFL imposed huge fines on three players — Pittsburgh's James Harrison, Atlanta's Dunta Robinson and New England's Brandon Meriweather — for illegal hits last weekend, although none of those plays drew penalties on the field. It warned that, starting with this week's games, violent conduct will be cause for suspension.
Arizona Cardinals linebacker Joey Porter was clearly perplexed by the decision.
"There's no more hitting hard. That's what our game is about. It's a gladiator sport," Porter said. "I mean, the whole excitement of people getting hit hard, big plays happening, stuff like that.
"Just watch — the game is going to change."
Violence has always been a part of the NFL, bringing soaring TV ratings and strong attendance — along with the allure that accompanied tackles by Chuck Bednarik, Fred "The Hammer" Williamson, and Jack "The Assassin" Tatum.
The question is how much to allow.
"Physical, tough football is what people are attracted to," said Ray Anderson, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations. "Violent, unnecessary hits that put people at risk, not just for the careers but lives ... we're not subscribing to the notion fans want that."
Commissioner Roger Goodell told the teams that "further action is required to emphasize the importance of teaching safe and controlled techniques and of playing within the rules."
"It is incumbent on all of us to support the rules we have in place to protect players," he said.
But some players think the league is asking for something much more difficult: complete changes in playing style — changes that fans don't want to see.
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."
Miami linebacker Channing Crowder said the only way of preventing helmet-to-helmet hits is to eliminate the helmet.
"If I get a chance to knock somebody out, I'm going to knock them out and take what they give me," Crowder said. "They give me a helmet, I'm going to use it."
The players are questioning how they are supposed to adhere to the heightened emphasis on avoiding dangerous hits when it goes against everything they've been taught since they first stepped on the field as kids.
"Guys have to be coached differently because we've been coached a certain way our whole lives," said Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita, a member of the executive committee of the players' union, the NFLPA. "I think people out there would be shocked at the things players hear in their meetings with their coaches and the things they are supposed to do, the way they are taught to hit people."
Many players also wanted stronger discipline for flagrant fouls to be part of their negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement, not something unilaterally imposed six weeks into the season.
"We want to protect the players, absolutely," Fujita said. "But we need to have a longer conversation about it, and if you're going to impose sweeping changes like that and talk about suspending players, that's something that you have to address in the offseason."
Anderson argues that the way the game is played, officiated and policed will only change for the better — and safer.
"We are not going to fundamentally change the game. We're focused on one thing, illegal hits to the head and neck area," he said. "We hope to culturally change it so players understand those head hits under existing rules should be taken out of the game. For players who can't make the adjustment on their own, they will get a lot of help from this office to make sure they don't play that way."
Officials will be instructed to have an even higher level of attention toward flagrant hits, which Anderson categorized as limited "but very high profile and damaging."
The NFL's crackdown was welcomed in the medical community.
Dr. William Bingaman, vice chairman of the Neurological Institute at the Cleveland Clinic and one of the independent doctors who examines concussed players to determine when they can return to action, sees it as a positive step.
But it's hardly a cure-all for preventing head injuries — or any other injuries — in the NFL, where the players are bigger and faster, and the enhanced equipment can make them foolishly gallant.
"We will never eliminate the dangers of a concussion occurring," Bingaman said, taking note that both Robinson and Jackson suffered concussions in their collision. "It's huge that we have the proper equipment and the proper training and proper tackling techniques.
"Anything that reduces a blow to the head, naturally I am in favor of that, because there is less risk and less incidents of concussions or something more serious. If you reduce helmet-to-helmet contact, it will reduce the number of concussions, but nothing they do can eliminate it."
Just as worrisome to some players, though, is limiting their ability to remain in the NFL.
"The guys who have had the knack to lay somebody out, I consider it a talent in itself," Broncos safety David Bruton said. "I feel as though these deterrents would be depriving them of the chance to showcase their abilities."
Anderson disagreed. "We're not subscribing to the notion you want these guys out there running wild and blowing people up," he said. "Everything is on the table with regard to advancing player safety."
Contributing to this story were AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Stapleton in Denver, and Sports Writers Steven Wine in Miami, David Ginsburg in Baltimore, Bob Baum in Phoenix and Tom Withers in Cleveland.