Monday, March 5, 2012

Mutiny on the Bounty: NFL Must Severely Punish Renegade Saints

Supposedly, "real" NHL fans don't want fighting taken out of their game and "real" NFL fans don't care about bounties paid out for hits that could maim a player or even end his career. If that is what it means to be a "real" fan then I am proud not to be a "real" fan because I believe that even in an inherently violent sport there still should be not just a written code of conduct--which the New Orleans Saints clearly and admittedly violated in several ways from 2009-2011--but also an unwritten code. Current and former players often speak of a "brotherhood" or "fraternity" that crosses team lines but the idea of an institutional mindset involving large cash payments expressly for "cart off" and "knockout" hits makes a mockery of such alleged unity.

This bounty scandal is inevitably being compared to the so-called Spygate situation but I still don't understand how something can be called "spying" when it involved someone in team regalia not even attempting to disguise the fact that he was gathering publicly available information. As King Kaufman put it, "Where a team has an expectation of privacy, it should get privacy. A guy standing on the sideline and flashing semaphores to the middle linebacker can't expect privacy." The Spygate situation did not affect the outcome of games, unlike three scandals that I mentioned in a September 15, 2007 BEST article: (1) the widespread use of steroids/PEDs by the 1970s Steelers teams that won four Super Bowls, (2) the use of steroids/PEDs by more recent Pro Bowl players like Shawne Merriman and (3) the salary cap circumvention that enabled the Denver Broncos to build and maintain a roster that won back to back championships.

The Saints' bounty program run by then-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams with the knowledge (and thus tacit approval) of Coach Sean Payton allegedly included between 22 and 27 players, resulted in injuries sustained by two star quarterbacks (Brett Favre and Kurt Warner) during playoff games won by the Saints in their 2009 championship run and is an egregious violation of both written and unwritten rules. The written rules involve the prohibition against specifically and deliberately targeting individual players with the intent of committing injuries and also involve circumvention of the salary cap through the payment of bonuses; the unwritten rules, as indicated above, involve the gross (in every sense of the word) and flagrant disregard for the brotherhood that supposedly unites all NFL players.

Another very real and significant issue here is that the NFL has to swiftly and severely punish everyone involved in the bounty program not only to react to what has happened and prevent it from ever happening again but also to make it clear that from an institutional standpoint the NFL firmly comes down on the side of player safety. Hall of Fame quarterback and current ESPN analyst Steve Young noted that if he had been injured playing against the Saints during the time period in question he would have to seriously consider filing a lawsuit because of the organized and institutional nature of the Saints' program to deliberately and seriously injure opposing players. The NFL is already under fire for its current and historical policies regarding head injuries and post-career health care, so the Saints' bounty program is a legal, ethical and public relations nightmare for the league (not to mention possible implications regarding legal wagering on games whose outcomes were altered by "cart off" and "knockout" hits). If it is true that Williams ran similar bounty programs with other teams and/or that such programs are also in place on other squads that he was not involved with then that only makes the NFL's problem even worse.

Today on ESPN, former NFL defensive back and head coach Herm Edwards summed it up best: "Players and coaches alike all know this: it's a privilege and not a right to be a part of the National Football League. The intent to maim or take a player out or maybe end his career is not professional football. It shouldn't be coached that way and shouldn't be taught that way and shouldn't be played that way."

The idea of deliberately targeting a specific opposing player for a "cart off" or "knockout" injury is so repugnant that I would not be opposed to the NFL permanently banning Gregg Williams (and possibly others, depending on the extent of their involvement) from coaching in the league. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has repeatedly said that he holds owners, executive and coaches to an even higher standard than players, so if that is the case then in addition to issuing long suspensions to the participating players Goodell must severely punish Williams and the other coaches or executives directly involved in the bounty program. This is not a matter of "boys will be boys" or football being an inherently violent sport; there is nothing wrong with delivering hard, clean hits or with trying to use legal physicality to break the will of your opponent but deliberately targeting opposing players for serious and possibly career-ending injuries simply cannot be tolerated.



The hit that then-Indianapolis Coach Tony Dungy believes led to the neck problems that Peyton Manning is still dealing with was delivered by a Gregg Williams-coached Washington defense. Sports Illustrated's Peter King suggests that this topic should come up when Williams meets with NFL brass to discuss the extent of Williams' bounty programs.


Matt said...

"...there is nothing wrong with delivering hard, clean hits or with trying to use legal physicality to break the will of your opponent..."

But why weren't those specific "bounty-hits" flagged for unnecessary roughness? Could it be that it is nearly impossible in today's game to distinguish between conventional play and kill shots? I would argue that what Williams was explicitly incentivize what is already standard operating procedure. (Unless you're Deion Sanders.)

I am not seeking to minimize or excuse the actions taken by Williams and any others; I certainly agree that this is a much bigger deal than Spygate and I am disheartened-but hardly surprised- that many ex-players seem oblivious to how this appears from the outside.

However, I strongly resist the notion that this is rare, the action of a rogue coach/team; or that there is a wide, bold line separating the bounty-system and the culture of what Coach Herm referred to as "professional football", specifically as it regards the health and safety of players. Darryl Stingley spent most of his life in a wheelchair because of a 'clean hit.'

David Friedman said...


Several of the "bounty hits" were flagged for unnecessary roughness and the Saints were one of the most penalized teams during the period in question.

There is a big difference between delivering a hard, solid between the numbers hit that might hurt a player physically or weaken him psychologically and going after a player's head or knees to earn a "cart off" bonus. When the Saints played Favre in the playoffs they clearly went after his head and his ankle in an attempt to knock him out of the game.

The Stingley play happened decades ago when the rules were different but even at that time it was a vicious (if perhaps technically legal) hit for a preseason game. It is certainly possible for a football player to sustain a serious injury on a legal play, which is all the more reason that the rules have to be enforced so that players are not running around making even more dangerous illegal plays.