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Patrick Hruby

BountyGate, Spinning Out of Control

Is the NFL losing control of the narrative around the Gregg Williams tape?

When it comes to subtly shaping public opinion, the National Football League is whip-smart. Practiced. Almost always successful. So much so that I sometimes wonder if the league's various brand managers and marketing strategists and federal lobbyists and legal counsels-cum-shield protectors get bored. Crave a real challenge. Dream about dumping the low-hanging fruit -- hoodwinking municipalities into paying for stadiums, suggesting that players are selfish ingrates for engaging in financial negotiations -- and signing on for something tough. Something that would truly test their unmatched spinning chops. Like getting Newt Gingrich elected president.

In the wake of the new Gregg Williams BountyGate audiotape, however, I'm wondering if the NFL has lost control of the narrative.

When the New Orleans Saints' Cash-4-Injuries story broke, my first thought was oof. Not good for the league. My second thought was, okay, sure, football is a violent game played by large men slamming into each other with mostly bad intentions. Thanks for the reminder, I guess.

My third thought? Why on Earth did the league leak this story?

That's always been the curious thing about BountyGate: no one outside of the league office ever had to know about it. The story wasn't broken by an enterprising investigative reporter. It was released by the NFL. On purpose. Even though the league could have dealt with it quietly and behind closed doors -- a fine here, a suspension there, an abrupt Williams retirement with a good-enough, more-time-with-my-family cover story and voila! Everyone moves on to Andrew Luck versus RGIII.

Instead, the NFL rolled out a dog-and-pony show. Produced a voluminous report. Embraced the eager media. Issued stern, thunderous, zero-tolerance proclamations about the sanctity of player safety. Like a lot of observers, I figured the latter tipped the league's true intentions: BountyGate was a calculated sacrifice. A clever hedge against a raft of concussion lawsuits filed by former players, as well as a growing social realization that playing football can be hazardous for your mental health. A way for a league that has acted far too much like the Big Tobacco of Brain Trauma to tell a future judge, jury or court-appointed settlement arbitrator -- not to mention a nation of nervous youth football mothers -- that see, we're doing everything we can to protect athletes! Not our fault! Football's only dangerous if no-good, very bad men like Gregg Williams are allowed to run free! And for a little while, I thought this tactic was even working -- public conversation seemed fixated on penny ante crime and punishment, like Sean Payton's suspension, as opposed to the big-picture question of football's long-term viability as a wholesome character-building exercise totally unlike boxing and MMA.

After today, I'm not so sure.

The Williams tape might end up a blip, forgotten in upcoming draft excitement, a speed bump on the road to the next fantasy football season. But maybe, just maybe, it's a game-changer. For one, it essentially hands all of the concussion plaintiffs a giant club: as sports law analyst and friend of this blog Michael McCann pointed out on Twitter:

Michael McCann ‏ @mccannsportslaw 

If concussion suits v. NFL go to trial, plaintiffs lawyers will probably try to play tape of Williams: ""Kill the head, the body will die."

Kill the head. The body will die. This is basically what United States policymakers said before the Iraq War. It's a common boxing trainer verbal trope. It's also a total football coach cliche, a literal phrase and overall attitude to launch 1,000 blustery pregame locker room speeches. To me, Williams' exhortations to physically punish opposing players are extraordinarily detailed -- at least in terms of specific knee ligaments -- but otherwise notable for their sheer ordinariness. After all, in reminding his charges to "put a lick" on recently-concussed San Francisco kick returner Kyle Williams, the defensive coach was only saying out loud what everybody in the sport, including the Super Bowl champion New York Giants, already thinks. Hit somebody. Physically dominate. To borrow from another well-known pep talk, the one given by Al Pacino in the unintentional camp classic "Any Given Sunday": that's football, guys. That's all it is.

Only now, people outside the locker room can hear it. Loud and clear. A verbal barrage that can't be spun.

In this respect, I wonder if BountyGate will spawn unintended consequences for the NFL.

The league's long-term prosperity depends on society continuing to buy a variation on the old Shakespearian chestnut: football in itself isn't good or bad, but intentions make it so. Change the culture of the sport, and you can change the scary physical carnage, too. Only this isn't actually the case: nasty thoughts and cash bounties don't cause brain trauma. Physics and biology cause brain trauma. Hitting causes brain trauma. And hitting is football, the essence of the game, the sin qua non of Williams' speech. The culture that needs changing doesn't reside in the Saints' locker room -- it resides everywhere else, in all of us who have fashioned a de facto national pastime out of increasingly self-evident harm.