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Patrick Hruby

Having and Eating Your Football Cake

On BountyGate and violence


Appearing on a local sports talk radio show earlier this week, former Washington Redskins lineman George Starke told the story like this: back in the 1970s, 'Skins coach George Allen put a bounty on Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach. A cool $200. And that was perfectly okay.

Because?

"The bounty was to knock him out," Starke said. "Not hurt him. Let's be clear about that. Knock him out."

This is how football moralizers see things. Many players, too. Plus the readers who took offense at my recent Guardian UK online column on BountyGate. For them, there is a fundamental, neo-Victorian philosophical difference between hitting another human being with the intent to hurt and hitting them with the intent to, I dunno, knock them out of a game and into next week via a good, hard, clean tackle. It's a world view best articulated by ESPN.com's Gregg Easterbrook -- former colleague, great guy, relentless proponent-cum-arbiter of right and wrong as they pertain to pigskin:

... there will always be injuries in football. But the intent of a football player never should be to injure; the intent should be to hit hard, legally. American law places considerable emphasis on intent. Intending to harm your opponent changes football from something manly and sportsmanlike into something brutish and disgusting ...

Sure. If you say so.

Here's the thing about broken ribs, torn ligaments, concussed brains: honorable intentions don't make them any less painful, severe or real. Harm is harm; damage is damage. Remember that scene in "Terminator 2" when skatepunk John Connor orders cybernetic killing machine Arnold Schwarzenegger to take out an entire SWAT team without, ahem, killing them? The Ex-Governator didn't hand the cops tulip bunches. He shot them in their kneecaps. The end result was not a triumph of "manly sportsmanship;" it was an enormous future strain on the LA County police disability fund.

Granted, football players aren't shooting each other, a la "The Last Boy Scout." But they are hurting each other. All the time, in a million different ways. Hurting each other is baked into football. Violence is an essential part of the game; you can make a good case that violence is the game. It is neither an accident nor an unfortunate byproduct of trying to score and prevent touchdowns - it's the inevitable outcome of hitting, blocking and tackling as they relate to physics and human biology.

Like a medieval monk parsing the number of angles on a pinhead, Starke insists that none of his teammates were trying to hurt Staubach. They were just trying to knock him out. Hello? How does knocking out happen? By lightly tapping Captain Comeback on the shoulder pads and calmly requesting his presence in the training room for the next two hours? Um, no. It happens through the application of force, mass times acceleration, to Staubach's brain and musculoskeltal system, until one or both are so broken that the quarterback can't throw a pass, and/or stand up straight.

As such, who gives a s__t about intent? It. Is. Irrelevant. I can intend not to break your jaw and leave you drinking through a straw all I like; if we're playing dodgeball and I'm throwing bricks at you because bricks are a part of the game, what do you think is going to happen?

Also remember: no one on the Saints has been accursed of doing anything egregiously improper on the field. Nobody bit Brett Favre. Nobody grabbed Kurt Warner's arm and bent it backwards like a drinking straw. According to a Wall Street Journal video and statistical review, New Orleans "can't even be classified as the league's dirtiest team," having been whistled for only the sixth-highest number of personal fouls since 2009.

The Saints were simply doing what Favre said they were doing: playing football.

Football moralists don't want to hear this. Football moralists want their violent cake -- and to eat it, too -- without getting bloodstains on their shirts. Football moralists are fixated on intent because it props up the rather lucrative delusion that the game is -- as I put in the Guardian -- something akin to arm wrestling. Arm wrestling revolves around physical domination. Participants inflict and endure pain and suffering. They even get injured, sometimes severely. Thing is, nobody wants that to happen -- unlike boxing and MMA, which by Easterbrook's definition are brutish and disgusting, and hardly the sort of vigorous, robust athletic pursuits that can teach our high school boys to become noble manly men.

Over at Grantland, inimitable bulls__t buster Charlie Pierce pops this Hindenburg of convenient cognitive dissonance more eloquently than I ever could:

... what the [New Orleans] Saints will truly be punished for is the unpardonable crime of ripping aside the veil. For years, sensitive people in and out of my business drew a bright moral line between boxing and football. Boxing, they said, gently stroking their personal ethical code as if they were petting a cat, is a sport where the athletes are deliberately trying to injure each other. On the other hand, football is a violent sport wherein crippling injuries are merely an inevitable byproduct of the game. I always admired their ability to make so measured — and so cosmetic — a moral judgment. This was how those sensitive people justified condemning boxing while celebrating football, and, I suspect, how many of them managed to sleep at night after doing so.

The entire existence of the NFL — and of football at any level, for all of that — rests on whether or not the game can keep fooling itself, and its paying fan base, that it is somehow superior to boxing and to the rest of our modern blood sports. That's how it gets the upmarket ad revenue that is still leery of, say, those barbarians who compete in MMA. That's what keeps the luxury boxes filled with executives from BMW and Sony, and not with guys peddling cheap legal services and discount gold. That's why the NFL was so unpardonably dilatory to come around on the issue of head injuries. To recognize that head injuries were as essential a part of football as they are of boxing would be to erase the fine distinction on which the game's respectability rested ...

Pierce is right: the NFL is going to come down, and come down hard, on the Saints. The league has no choice. Through BountyGate, Gregg Williams, Jonathan Vilma and Co. inavertently committed the one truly unforgivable sin in public life: exposing our cherished collective delusions. Providing a peek at the man behind the curtain. Supposedly, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is extra-livid because New Orleans lied to him about its bounty program. The Saints aren't the only ones being dishonest.