By Leland Stein, III
Okay, football, especially in the NFL is a very violent game. It is a first cousin to the Roman Gladiators, who fought so gallantly against lions and each other in the now world famous Coliseum.
Sure we have stepped up the humanity and have taken the lions out of the contest, and, the gladiators no longer have to kill each other at a king or queen’s behest. There are now rules and referees that oversee the on field carnage, but make no mistake about it, football is a contact sport. Just ask Hall of Famers the late John Mackey, who pasted prematurely with frontal temporal dementia. Or ask former Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon, who is experiencing early dementia.
So when the word came out recently that the New Orleans Saints' had a well known bounty system, I can understand the outrage. It is reported that the Saints bounty scandal operated between 2009-2011 and involved 22 to 27 defensive players. Conversely, the biggest buzz in sports is the NFL’s penalties handed to the New Orleans Saints for the bounty scandal.
The NFL announced heavy sanctions against the Saints recently after concluding an investigation that proved former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams administered an illegal bounty program between 2009 and 2011. New Orleans defenders were financially compensated for injuring opposing offensive players. Williams, who left the team in January to become defensive coordinator in St. Louis, was suspended indefinitely by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Saints head coach Sean Payton was suspended for the entire 2012 season. General manager Mickey Loomis (eight-game suspension) and assistant head coach/linebackers Joe Vitt (six) also were disciplined. In addition, the franchise was fined $500,000 and stripped of 2012 and 2013 second-round draft picks.
The NFL said four quarterbacks were specifically targeted by the Saints. One of them was dynamic Carolina Panthers rookie Cam Newton in 2011. Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis said he could understand why Newton was on a proverbial hit list. “When you see Cam come in and produce, you wonder why they wouldn’t select him as one of those guys to go after because he meant so much to our team,” Davis said. Suspensions and fines for players who were involved are forthcoming. NFLPA executive George Atallah said he hopes the union is consulted in that disciplinary process. He said the NFLPA was unaware the league had conducted a lengthy investigation into the Saints until the day that findings were announced to the media. Atallah also said the NFLPA still has not received access to the full report that was compiled. Okay I understand the discipline on the coaches and soon maybe the players, but is it over done? Did any of the players actually hurt anyone. In fact, it is very close to impossible to just not tackle but twist, maim or mutilate an individual, without the public or NFL administration seeing it.
Every defensive player is trying to put a hard hit on an opposing runner or receiver or quarterback.
The NFL issued this penalty because it is worried about its image and public relation status to the world. The game itself is violent and will always be so. Knockouts and cremating hits are what the game is all about. Every team wants, needs to take out a quarterback to ensure a chance at winning the game. Anytime big bodies clash into each other injuries will happen. For example Super Bowl-winning quarterback Joe Theismann's leg was gruesomely broken by Lawrence Taylor in the 1980s on national television . . . but, hey that was just football. John Unitas getting his head taken off by Dick “Night Train: Lane or Jim Brown getting closed lined by Sam Huff.
The unprecedented severity of Goodell’s punishment has become a hot debate topic. It has never happened in sports that coaches would get this type of treatment. “Anybody who has played this game, there’s a 100 percent injury risk under normal circumstances,” said an unidentified NFL veteran. “To hear there have been bounties placed on the heads of players . . . I understand you have incentive for interceptions or fumbles where you’re not trying to cause bodily harm to another man. But to actually put a price tag on somebody else’s head and go out there with the intent of trying to hurt that man and take food out of his family’s mouth, it’s unacceptable. How can I argue or dispute his retort? I do not!
But it is really all about public relation and the way it all looks on paper and not really about the game itself.
I think Goodell is trying to make sure he sends the right message that this will not be tolerated. He wants the appearance that the league is trying to focus on the health and safety on their players. This was a direct attack on that. The commissioner did this to send that message.
I think the penalties were pretty harsh and directed at the perception of what the league is all about. But this ruling that has taken the media world by storm, but it will not stop the injuries and inherent violence that is the NFL. Scientific studies show head trauma can leave long-term damage. Hundreds of former players are suing the NFL in federal court, saying they weren't protected properly from injury. Congress is paying close attention. Part of the reason the New Orleans Saints were punished so severely for their bounty system could be, as Commissioner Goodell indicated when explaining his decision, that nothing is as critical for the league right now as the safety of players and real concern about concussions.
In the current climate, those issues seem to permeate every decision made at NFL headquarters.
I get the morality bit and the image of the game, but let’s keep it real for a moment, the NFL is not a place for the delicate or the fragile. Never has been (with shout outs to Sam Huff, Dick “Night Train” Lane, Deacon Jones, Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary, Vince Lombardi) and never will be.
It is naive to think players and teams don’t talk about this kind of stuff - or aren’t generally rewarded for this kind of stuff with jobs and contract extensions – you’re not paying attention to the inherent violence of this game. The gridiron is not a polka dance or knitting contest. It’s territorial and can get bloody. Players and coaches know they can win games by inflicting pain, and the intent is always to win games, so imposing pain is a goal of every defensive player bounty or no bounty system.
Yeah, I know the bounty system looks bad. I mean no one should be out to hurt another athlete for the sake of money, but on the other hand isn’t that why everyone gets paid to do. It’s wrong, but it happens.
The late Raiders owners, Al Davis said:“The quarterback must go down, and he must go down hard.” Davis was brutally honest and he was right. That’s not dirty. That’s just the sport - survival of the fiercest. If you get hurt, you lose. Great defenses are angry defenses that inflict hurt on offensive players trying to break their will. I’ve been around football too long to think otherwise.
Leland Stein can be reached at email@example.com or at Twitter @lelandsteinIII.