The Steelers played in San Francisco Monday night without James Harrison. It seems the powers that be didn’t want to see his act in the City by the Bay. Comedy pioneer, Lenny Bruce, had some trouble performing there too. Harrison’s craft has come under much speculation of late. Is he the quarterback hunting, hard hitting, defensive player of the year that he once was? Or has he gone off script; an obscene version of everything the National Football League would like to sweep under the rug.
I may be going far afield to compare a professional linebacker to a nightclub comedian, but please give me enough rope to hang myself here. Lenny Bruce began his career by floundering through several diverse performance persona’s. He found it difficult to stand out from the crowd of other rookies vying for the stage. Bruce eventually found his niche’ and began getting accolades for his unfiltered, hard hitting style and eagerness to confront the mainstream authoritarians that he felt needed to be called out. Sounding familiar yet? James Harrison came out of Kent State and had difficulty catching on with a pro team. He channeled that frustration and perceived lack of respect into hard hits and a harder psyche. Harrison kept hanging around until he became a headliner. He honed his act on practice squads and special teams; a few seconds in the spotlight here and there until prime time came calling.
James Harrison was lauded by the media as a throwback player; A man among boys who was fearless and tough. Comparisons to Bednarick, Butkus, and of course all of the great Steelers linebackers from the 70’s were sent his way. He was smart, tough, and wasn’t about to take shit from anyone. Lenny Bruce and James Harrison made their initial mark on their quite different professions in interestingly similar ways: by working on the edge, playing with attitude and tackling the man above them. And that’s where the difficulties began for both of these men. They both forgot who they were working for. Everybody answers to someone. Whether that someone is your booking agent or the Commissioner of the NFL, or the club owner that hired you or… well, the Commissioner of the NFL, they will find a way to reign you in and put you in your place.
Stand up comedy is just a series of words arranged to illicit a response from a crowd and set up the next punch line. Football is just a series of physical moves designed to illicit a response from a crowd and set up the next play. Is this oversimplification of both vocations? Yes and no. You can arrange your words in an extremely edgy manner ala Richard Pryor and keep a career arc going for decades. Keep walking the line but remember who you work for. Or you can arrange your words in a slightly different manner and get censored and run out of town like Lenny Bruce did. Authorities waited at the side of the stage nightly to either pull the plug on the performance (literally) or to put him in shackles and take him away (also literally).
James Harrison explodes at the snap of the ball in very much the same way Clay Matthews Jr. or Terrell Suggs does. But it is perceived that he uses his body and his helmet in a slightly different way than other players do; in an obscene and criminal way. This has put the NFL on high alert to watch James Harrison; every tackle is examined for the thug element and in some cases it’s found. You can most always find what you go looking for. The National Football League and its top cop, Roger Goodell, have succeeded in the past by hitting James Harrison in the wallet. Now they have succeeded in taking him off of his stage.
By the end of his career, Lenny Bruce was a shell of his former self. He had taken to reading trial transcripts from the stage (his social media) and whining about the conspiracies, real and imagined, that were derailing his future and his earnings. He wondered where all the support and encouragement had gone for his act and his talent. James Harrison has called Goodell ‘The Devil’ in print. He has Tweeted that he could have hit Colt McCoy harder than he did. Tread ligtly in the spotlight. The final curtain is coming, James; just ask Lenny Bruce.