So, one NFL team got caught paying its players to inflict injury on key players on the opposing side. Be still my palpitating heart. You mean to tell me that pro football is a nasty, violent sport played for keeps and with no holds barred and where teams will do anything — up to and including trying to injure an opposing player — to win? Perish the thought.
The hypocrisy of the league, the teams, the fans, and especially the sanctimonious twits who style themselves “sportswriters” is incredible. The teams pay players to knock the snot out of the other fellow — the harder the hitter, the more dollars in his contract. The fans pay big bucks to watch them do it and cheer wildly at the mayhem. The league markets the game with not so subtle hints at the ferocity of its players. And sportswriters run out of adjectives describing hits on opposing players that, if delivered outside the lines of the field, would constitute probable cause for assault and battery.
The New Orleans Saints — specifically, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and 22 players — pooled their money to pay bounties for knocking opposing players out of the game. Williams, hired as defensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams this past offseason, has been suspended by the league “indefinitely.” Head coach Sean Payton, who apparently tried to cover up the activity, got a one-year suspension. The team was also fined and lost a couple of draft picks.
The league took this action not so much because they are concerned about “sportsmanship” or “fair play” but because paying bounties is against the rules. There is a perfectly legal and far more elegant way for teams to accomplish the exact same thing the Saints managed to do: Pay massive contracts to players with a reputation for pulverizing opponents. Some of the highest paid players in the game are also some of its hardest hitters. Hitting an opponent like a ton of bricks is likely to cause some kind of injury whether it slows the player down or puts him on the sideline for a couple of games. Bone, sinew, muscle, tendons, cartilage — the human body, no matter how well conditioned, did not evolve over the last 2 million years to be crunched by a 260 pound linebacker who runs a 4.4 40 yard dash. The collisions rattle bones, and even brains, as concussions are at an all time high in the NFL.
And there is a far more effective way to police this kind of thing: let the players and opposing teams deal with it in their own way.
Warren Sapp, former all-pro defensive lineman:
“We don’t keep many secrets in the NFL, if you knocking a dude out, you getting paid — that’s going to get around,” Sapp said on CBS This Morning. “Once that gets out, the league’s going to come down on you even more then. Teams are going to start coming after your guys.”
There you have it: mutually assured destruction. You take out our guy, we go after two of yours. It worked in baseball for 100 years until the league began to butt its nose into the nuances of the game. If a pitcher threw at the head of an opposing player, he had best be ready to duck when it was his turn to bat. Or sometimes the payback would come in the form of a bean ball thrown at the other team’s best player. A balance of power was maintained in this imperfect manner, and it protected players and pitchers as well.
That’s changed today as umpires now have the leeway to warn opposing pitchers and managers after a brushback pitch that a repeat will send the offenders to the showers. Without opportunity for payback, there are far more bench clearing brawls today, not to mention that the practice gives umpires far too much power to affect the outcome of games.
One wonders now that if the Saints are being punished for trying to injure opposing players, if the well accepted practice of “working” an opponent with an injury will also be penalized. Every game week, from Wednesday through Saturday, teams are forced to issue an injury report that lists players and their ailments as well as their status for playing on Sunday. Teams are well aware of who is playing hurt and include those facts in their game planning. If a running back has bruised ribs, is the defensive lineman going to ignore that? Or is he going to make sure those ribs receive a thorough pounding throughout the game? And hey! If you ding the guy up good enough and he has to sit out a few series, you’ve done your job.
How about a quarterback with a bad shoulder? Are pass rushers going to go easy on him when they slam him to the ground? Or an offensive lineman with a gimpy knee — does the defensive lineman not try to put pressure on the player that may worsen the injury? The defensive player won’t drop and drive his helmet directly into the lineman’s knee — probably. But short of that, anything is fair game.
All the Saints did was formalize what is normally an ad hoc practice by all NFL teams. Obviously, the optics for the league are horrible. And it doesn’t help that nearly 600 NFL players have been arrested since 2000, contributing to the image of thuggery. But the fiction for the fans must be maintained that the game features sportsmanship and fair play rather than cutthroat competition and doing anything to gain an edge.
And if everyone would remember that, there’d be a lot less hypocritical wailing and gnashing of teeth and a more realistic look at the true nature of the game that so many of us love.