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Teams that commit multiple flagrant hits will face sanctions

The NFL will punish teams next season if their players commit multiple flagrant hits that result in fines.

The punishment will be financial, although league vice president Adolpho Birch said Tuesday that he didn't rule out NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell applying further sanctions such as stripping teams of draft choices.

Citing the "notion of club accountability," Birch said details such as the amount of the fines against teams, or how many player fines would trigger punishment, haven't been determined.

"As a club's total increases to a certain threshold, we will enforce some ... payback to encourage clubs to stay below that threshold," Birch said at the NFL Spring Meeting in Indianapolis. "We're looking at a system similar to one we instituted a couple years ago with off-field conduct."

The NFL began a crackdown on illegal hits, particularly those to defenseless players, last October. It threatened suspensions, but no players were suspended. However, Ray Anderson, the league's chief disciplinarian, has said suspensions will be considered for egregious hits this season.

Teams are now being put on notice, as well as the players, that illegal hits will result in substantial discipline.

Birch wouldn't identify which teams from 2010 would have been subject to fines had the policy been in place, but he did say at least three teams might have been punished.

"We'll check the number of fines and the level of fines going out for infractions that relate to various player safety violations," Birch said. "Particularly head and helmet issues."

Pittsburgh Steelers All-Pro linebacker James Harrison, whom the NFL fined $100,000 for flagrant hits last season, expressed his displeasure about the situation.

"I'm absolutely sure now after this last rule change that the people making the rules at the NFL are idiots," Harrison tweeted Tuesday night.

The 32 owners voted unanimously Tuesday to approve rules amendments for player safety, including a measure aimed at keeping a player from launching himself into a defenseless opponent. A 15-yard penalty will result for anyone who leaves both feet before contact to spring forward and upward into an opponent and delivers a blow to the helmet of his opponent with any part of his helmet.

Such tackles also will be subject to fines.

The definition of a defenseless receiver already has been extended. Now, a receiver who hasn't had time to protect himself or hasn't clearly become a runner even if both feet are on the ground is considered defenseless.

Defenseless players cannot be hit in the head or neck area with the helmet, facemask, forearm or shoulder. The definition of such players now includes those throwing a pass; attempting or completing a catch without having time to ward off or avoid contact; a runner whose forward progress has been stopped by a tackler; kickoff or punt returners while the ball is in the air; kickers or punters during a kick or a return; a quarterback during a change of possession; a player who receives a blindside block from a blocker moving toward his own end zone.

Penalized players are subject to being ejected for flagrant fouls.

"This should permanently change the mentality of a defensive player trying to loosen the ball to change your target point," said NFL Competition Committee co-chairman Rich McKay, president of the Atlanta Falcons. "There were too many hits in the last three years that were legal but were not ones we were comfortable that the player who got hit had any chance to protect himself."

Also, hits to the head of a passer that aren't considered "forcible" blows will no longer be penalized.

"We are not saying to take the physicality out of the game in any way, shape or form," McKay said. "There are still lots of hits that are legal."

Separately, Birch confirmed that using the World Anti-Doping Agency to administer the league's drug policy is a possibility.

"From a procedural standpoint, we need to look at those options. That would be one option," he said. "We are certainly looking into that to see what that means for us and to see what that does to advance the idea that the NFL remains the leader in this area. What that means, we'll find out, but we are going to take a look at it."

The league also canceled next month's rookie symposium, the first league event called off because of the lockout.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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