The New Orleans Saints' bounties are just a part of the NFL's game
National Football League players are being paid good money to maim each other. Which apparently is news. A moral crisis, even. Not because said players are receiving official league paychecks to, you know, maim each other, but rather because the maiming in question is intentional, and also being funded by the rough equivalent of an informal office bonus pool.
Note: the last part is totally, totally scandalous.
Confused? Nostrils tickled by a faint whiff of rank hypocrisy, emanating from the spectacle of violent men being reprimanded for violent deeds in the context of a violent game? Follow along. Last week, the NFL announced that the New Orleans Saints violated league rules by running a multi-season bounty program, run by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, in which defenders paid into a kitty and received cash rewards for injuring opposing players: $1,000 if an opponent was carted off the field; $1,500 if he was knocked out of the game altogether; amounts doubling and tripling in the playoffs. Before the 2009 NFC title game, Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma reportedly threw $10,000 on a table and promised it to anyone who took out Minnesota's Brett Favre. Perhaps unsurprisingly, New Orleans defenders went on to mercilessly batter the Vikings quarterback, registering a vicious high-low hit as Favre threw a decisive late-game interception.
Moreover, Williams reportedly ran similar programs – what he charmingly dubbed "pay for performance," as if his defenders were used car salesmen receiving steakhouse gift cards for hitting their monthly sales targets, as opposed to hitting the likes of Favre and retired quarterback Kurt Warner – with the Washington Redskins and Buffalo Bills.
For its part, the NFL is not amused. According to multiple reports, league commissioner Roger Goodell is expected to slap the Saints with a more severe punishment than the fines and forfeited draft picks levied upon the New England Patriots for videotaping their opponents' coaching signals in the 2007 SpyGate scandal.
In other words: in professional football, it's bad to cheat. But it's far worse to accept tips for doing your job. Particularly for doing it well.
In fact, that's why Goodell has to crack down.
Here's the thing about football: it's a hurting profession, a fundamentally vicious game. Always has been. In 1905, a University of Chicago professor called it a "boy-killing, man-mutilating, money-making, education-prostituting, gladiatorial sport" – and that was nearly a century before anyone had heard of the mind-mincing, brain trauma-induced disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
Still, we accept the carnage, the crushing blows and kill shots, the pregame needles of Toradol and the subsequent damage done. More to the point, we enjoy the mayhem, thrilling to every collision. The hitting is the action is the juice. And a big part of our pleasure – how we rationalize and justify our collective, bloodthirsty id – comes from placing pro football into a particular, peculiar context. From looking at the sport not as glorified human cockfighting – like, say, boxing – but as something more honorable and benign.
Something akin to arm wrestling.
Arm wrestling revolves around physical domination. Participants inflict and endure pain and suffering. They even get injured, sometimes severely. That said, they don't mean to harm each other. There's no malice, no vicious intent. Harm isn't the point of the exercise; it's simply an inevitable, unfortunate outcome, like the radioactive waste produced from a nuclear power plant.
Come Sundays, we tell ourselves the same thing every time a football player is carted off the field.
When I first heard about the Saints bounty story, I reached out to David Meggyesy. A former NFL linebacker, Meggyesy also is something of a football hippie, a freethinking longtime union organizer who has written critically about the dehumanizing aspects of the sport and its culture. I figured he would blast the league's hypocrisy for preparing to penalize the Saints; instead, he echoed the above.
"When I played it was not so much inflicting pain or injury as it was making a good play to effect the outcome of the game," Meggyesy said. "A good hard tackle was part of the game and a joyful part of the game. If I did injure someone, I was not pleased and did not want to see it happen – but recognized it was part of the game itself. It could be said the game is hard enough, violent enough without bounties being given to injure and maim your opponent."
Sounds reasonable. Except for one thing: physical harm being part of the game itself. That's where the problem lies, the fundamental contradiction at the heart of football's appeal, the dirty little secret no one wants to acknowledge. When a sport is inherently brutal – when the harm is baked in, when the point of the game is to move and/or retard the advance of the ball by knocking someone on their ass, hard, and when participants are rewarded for their skill and courage in doing so – then the whole honorable notion of not meaning to hurt someone becomes arbitrary, more or less irrelevant, fullbacks dancing on the head of a pin. Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks wrote on the league's website that when he was with the Kansas City Chiefs, players routinely were given framed pictures of their biggest hits during team meetings. Income tax considerations aside, this is fundamentally different than cash bounties … how?
Suppose I'm a Saints linebacker. Suppose you're an opposing quarterback. I'm trying to sack you so hard that you fumble the ball – giving my team a better chance to win, and upping my contract renegotiation leverage in the process. Maybe I'm not trying to concuss you. No matter. Chances are good that I'll end up doing so, either by whiplashing your neck or slamming your head into the turf. What's the more likely result of a "good, hard tackle" – broken ribs, or an impromptu ice cream social?
The hitting is the action is the juice. Players know this. And frankly, a lot of them are trying to hurt each other. Dave Pear, a former All-Pro defensive lineman who won a Super Bowl with the Oakland Raiders, told me that bounties on particular offensive players were commonplace in the 1970s. Atlanta receiver Roddy White and Buffalo linebacker Shawne Merriman are among more than a half-dozen current players who say the same practice remains commonplace today. Dan Daly, a football historian and longtime writer for the Washington Times, told me that bounties go back to the 1950s – the only real difference is that old school players threw $5 to $10 in the kitty, as opposed to thousands of dollars.
"It's a fundamental part of the NFL's culture that isn't talked about outside of team facilities," wrote former NFL safety Matt Bowen – who played under Williams in Washington – in the Chicago Tribune. "I'm not saying it's right. Or ethical. But the NFL isn't little league football with neighborhood dads playing head coach. This is the business of winning. If that means stepping over some line, you do it."
This is real reason BountyGate qualifies as a scandal, and why the league has to come down hard on New Orleans: not because the team crossed a line, but because they offered a peek at the battered men and human heat-seeking missiles behind the curtain. Whether you're earning an above-board paycheck or an off-the-books bonus, trying to injure or just trying to make a good, hard tackle, the unsettling truth is this: someone's getting hurt. There is no line. There's simply the one we draw in our heads, the one that makes the NFL as enjoyable as action movies and "Madden" and other televised diversions in which actual people aren't actually damaged. The hypocrisy here isn't coming from the league. But don't take my word for it. Ask Favre. Contacted by Sports Illustrated's Peter King, the retired quarterback was asked about the beating he took against the Saints. "I'm not pissed," he said. "It's football. I don't think anything less of those guys." Favre was right. That's football. It ain't arm wrestling.
Read the original article at the Guardian Online