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Hairy issue leaves players, officials and fans in disarray

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The National Football League (NFL) may be one of the most macho and brutal competetitions in the world but that has not stopped it from being caught up in a squabble more commonly seen in kindergarten playgrounds.

As one of the most open and fiercely contested seasons in years bubbles toward the playoffs, the usual arguments about quarterbacks and wide receivers have suddenly been overshadowed by a debate over hair pulling.

Although are no rules in the NFL preventing players from grabbing their opponents by the mane while tackling them, Detroit defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh was penalized and later apologized to Barber.

"I'm not a dirty player," Suh told the Detroit News.

But that was by no means the end of the matter. Suh's actions, and the subsequent penalty, have dominated NFL chat shows and blog sites all week, with current and former players and officials at odds over the issue.

Some have called for mandatory penalties on players who go in for hair-tugging while others have suggested that players be banned from growing their locks, a proposal which NFL owners discussed in 2006 but chose not to enforce.

The issue is not isolated to the NFL. Several years ago, Australian rugby international George Smith, tired of having his braids repeatedly yanked on the field, chopped them off, sold them at auction and donated the proceeds to charity.

Last year, Elizabeth Lambert, a U.S. college soccer player, became a global internet sensation when she was caught on camera jerking an opponent to the ground by her ponytail. She was later suspended from playing.

There was no ban for Suh while for Barber, who is among a handful of players who wear their hair long as a tribute to their Samoan heritage, at least one thing is certain.

He has no plans to get a buzzcut and even has the backing of his coach.

"I'm fine with his hair being out," Cowboys interim coach Jason Garrett told ESPN.

(Reporting by Julian Linden; Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes)