Above Average Thoughts From An Average Guy
Was this a bounty-driven immobilizing body-numbing hit, or just the regular legal kind?
Everything about Bountygate reeks of such shameless laziness and contrived outrage that I’m embarrassed this was the story that had to awake me from my February blogging hibernation. Even the name is such a terribly painful concoction by NFL writers—in fairness, they were caught off guard having to work on a weekend in early March—that it caused us to contemplate whether the scandal-with-“gate”-suffix meme had finally run its course after four decades.
(For the record: The only other story possibility I had to write about while the winter doldrums wound down was LeBron, but seriously, why bother? America’s opinion of him is firmly entrenched and at this point his critics will latch onto anything they can use as rationale to validate their preconceived perception. And so James must live with that bane known as The Decision for life. Tape of that special and clips of the ensuing two years’ worth of backlash should be shown to every single AAU player in the country for the foreseeable future. If that doesn’t scare an entire generation of promising athletes into a lifetime of false, insincere humility and perpetually tempered expectations, I don’t know what will. But I digress.)
The commissioner’s statement on this scandal carefully tiptoed around the juicy part in an effort to make the Saints’ real punishable misconduct their brazen unregulated payments to players, thus placing this in the booking-Al Capone-for-tax-evasion class of justice. The statement’s focal point is expressed in the first sentence: “league rules have long prohibited payment of non-contract bonuses.” Thus, the ostensible purpose for the severity of the fines and penalties soon to be levied is that the NFL doesn’t want owners and coaches to get cute with bonuses as a means to entice players; in essence, they want to avoid the NFL equivalent of a Super PAC from manifesting (football teams are people, my friend!), with the bounties for knock-outs and cart-offs just being the raison d’etre for these payments. Yet it conveniently happened that through this story, the league can fire a warning shot to the other 31 teams and stage a long and ostentatious photo op for their newfound commitment to concussion awareness and head safety. It may have been the most thinly veiled of all thinly veiled underlying agendas, but the league made the obvious correct guess that team-sanctioned circumvention of the salary cap wouldn’t be the story here.
(The only thing that could’ve made this story more tailor-made for our overreactionary sports punditocracy is if USC and Ohio State football coaches were paying players out of pocket to injure opponents. If that were the case, George Dohrmann and Charles Robinson would’ve hacked into the world’s satellite systems to broadcast round-the-clock coverage out of an abandoned fallout shelter in the Mojave Desert.)
With the commissioner’s announcement late Friday afternoon, the media outrageometer went off the charts, and with the so far shrugged shoulders’ response from many fans, I fully expect this week will turn into a dialogue on why the masses who turn out for this sport in increasing droves with each new season can’t discern between guys being paid to hit each other and guys being paid to hit each other. Some writers have already tried to establish the false equivalence that the questioning of the meaningfulness of Bountygate is akin to endorsing potentially crippling death-blows. As one individual, let me speak on behalf of why some fans are having a hard time ginning up fury over the Saints’ misdeeds: Because we already have a form of legalized bounties. They’re called contracts.
I understand that the Saints’ coaches and general manager need to be punished for not assuming a responsible leadership role and cracking down on this behavior from within the organization, with head coach Sean Payton tacitly and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams directly rewarding malicious and violent hits on the field. The fines and suspensions will be just a roundabout way for Roger Goodell to reassert himself and let Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis know they’re now and forever his bitch. Done and done. But if the goal is seriously the long-term health and well-being of Goodell’s workforce, it’s going to take a hell of a lot more creative and ambitious thinking and transformative changes to his league to both protect the players and maintain a game bearing some resemblance to the one that now exists.
For me, concussion awareness is working in the sense that it least changes the way I watch the game. I cringe at hits I used to cheer at. This is a good thing. This is part of the culture change. It will be gradual. It will be generational. And it’s necessary for the game’s future existence. But the fact remains I’d cringe at the same hit whether it was completely legal or netting someone $1,000 on the side. Obviously, the bounty system should be abandoned by any and all teams currently employing it. But once again, that reflects a story dealing with forms of illegal player compensation. The league and media want us discussing head injuries, and that’s why I was unable to muster up the level of outrage they did: hits just as bad or worse can be done legally—and for more money! $1,000 is a paltry sum when you consider that defensive players can have the added motivation of fat, lucrative contracts and endorsements with unimpeachably legal hits.
Take the allegation that Jonathan Vilma put up a $10,000 bounty on Brett Favre in the NFC Championship Game in 2010, with the reward going to whoever delivered the blow that knocked the then-40-year-old quarterback out of the game. Let’s say there was no bounty whatsoever. Wouldn’t a Saints player be just as motivated to knock Favre out of the game? Wouldn’t that take away the Vikings’ leader on offense and greatly hinder their chances to win the conference title? Wouldn’t that help the Saints get to the Super Bowl? Wouldn’t doing the same thing to Peyton Manning the next game help the Saints win the Super Bowl? Wouldn’t that garner the defensive players responsible for those hard hits additional publicity, spotlight, and recognition? Wouldn’t the repeated game tape of their performance lead to certain players being singled out, thus increasing their bargaining power during their next contract negotiation? Wouldn’t they make more money that way? And most important, wouldn’t the quarterbacks and receivers in the path of the defense on their way to that title be just as vulnerable to the same devastating injuries?
So if the NFL’s deadly serious about their motives, their best solution is to not just ban bounties, but find a way to disincentive defensive players from taking the approach that repeated blows to the other team’s quarterback will enhance their chances of winning, ergo enhancing their own personal value to the team, ergo enhancing their negotiating leverage. Good luck with that!
A violent hit is a violent hit, and the fact remains that lots of jobs and money are on the line if that violent hit can lead to more wins. Sure, you can call it the culture of the game, but it’s really the business of the game. It’s why I empathized with James Harrison after he received a suspension for a hit on Colt McCoy in a game against the Browns last season. This was a linebacker lavished with a Defensive Player of the Year award and a fat contract for his style of play, and then seemingly overnight the NFL began bemoaning that style and demanding accountability for the way he went after opposing players. His hits were indeed dangerous, especially considering our nascent awareness regarding the effects of concussions—an awareness that seems to continually grow as more data emerges. But how can we expect someone who ascended to stardom playing one way to continue to play at a high level after being told he has to immediately cease playing the only way he knows how? Harrison doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong, nor should he. What works for him was celebrated in 2008 and vilified in 2011.
We all enabled this style of play and player for years and years, even after the game got too fast and the players too big. It’s been perversely amusing watching everyone trip over themselves trying to seem more outraged than the next as a way to compensate for all the years spent celebrating vicious and reckless hits and ignoring the subsequent damage incurred for our entertainment. But as much the league would prefer the necessary changes to happen overnight, they won’t. New fans and incoming players should be taught to reevaluate what constitutes a clean and safe hit. The rest of us are trying to adjust our perceptions, but old habits die hard.
I couldn’t help but conjure memories of the years immediately after the steroids era in baseball when news of Bountygate broke. It was the first time that the NFL league office and the media came down hard on something that received nary a mention for the team’s that undoubtedly did it in previous eras. I remember the baseball writers who made careers waxing poetic about the virtues of the long ball for years, and then when the shit hit the fan decided they could also serve as moral arbiters of the sincerity of the apology of an A-Rod or McGwire—the same guys whose “heroics” inspired their column material and made them national names. I can already envision this decade will usher in the onslaught of people pretending the “Jacked Up!” era never happened while they pontificate and lecture on accountability and player safety. Like with steroids, I’m glad the league and media have seemingly found religion on this subject. But I’d appreciate if they stopped acting like they’ve been preaching to empty pews all along. The fans aren’t crazy for failing to initially heed a clarion call that they’ve avoided sounding for years.
So to everyone in the league and media wondering where my outrage is, I’ll tell you what: I’ll bite. Fire Sean Payton. Ban Gregg Williams for life. Call it worse than Spygate. Say it taints Super Bowl 44. Dock them draft picks. Suspend coaches and players. Fine the owner. And while you’re all busy with your torches and pitchforks around the Superdome, how about finding a solution to quell the number of devastating head injuries, because setting an example out of Loomis, Payton, and Williams sure as hell does jack shit to ameliorate the pressing issue that could irrevocably alter the foundation of the league.
I’m not anywhere near informed or intelligent enough to know how the league should go about addressing the head injury problem. But I do know attacking Tom Benson’s checkbook and the Saints’ coaching staff doesn’t represent the end of the league’s woes. It’s not even the start.