When it comes to the developing dramas surrounding the NFL in the Saints' highly publicized bounty scandal, the entire ordeal has been a very polarizing topic for the league, as well as its fans, media and players.
However, what's the reality behind the headlines and reactions? Are players like Jonathan Vilma, Scott Fujita and others really the villains they're made out to be? What about the coaches? Should they be held more accountable for their involvement? And where does player safety come into all this?
These questions and many others I will attempt to answer by cutting through the middle of both sides of this very divisive issue.
For those of you who have been living under a rock for the past year (or simply aren't football fans and managed to stumble onto this article) and have no idea what this whole Bountygate scandal is about, allow me to enlighten you with a link that gives you a brief overview of the case.
Did the Saints really have a bounty on their opponents?
Short answer: Yes
Long answer: After reaching out to some current and former players who shall remain nameless, I'm left with the assumption the New Orleans Saints did operate a pay-per-performance program that included certain production categories such as knockouts and cart-offs.
If this isn't a fact to some degree by now, let us just assume it is, for argument's sake. The extent and details of this "bounty" are debatable, but questions about its existence should be put to rest for the most part.
After all, the NFL's investigation may have issues, but there's no way it has screwed this thing up so monumentally that it's now conjuring up an imaginary program allegedly operating for at least the last three years.
The culture of the NFL
It's starting to seem as though some people are forgetting the type of game football is. This is a full-contact sport where, consequently, the more pain you inflict on your opponent, the better chance you have of keeping your job. Everyone knows that a hard-hitting defense is a crucial part of winning a game.
Football has always been a sport having much more in common with boxing than it appears many seem to realize; commonalities lie mostly in the mentality of each.
In boxing, you are encouraged to knock your opponent out if you want to win. A boxer has no intention of keeping his opponent around till the 12th round. The sooner he takes him out, the better.
Those who distinguish themselves in the business as hard hitters receive personal praise, get on SportsCenter, make millions, build their legacy and, ultimately, perhaps earn their place in the Hall of Fame alongside others who played the game violently.
This is absolutely the mindset of any successful defense in football.
From an early age, players on the defensive side of the ball are made aware of what it takes to succeed at this often brutal sport. They're taught to physically impose their will on the opponent by sending him a message. Well, few things in this world send a message more clearly received than a painful one.
Less than a year ago, this was the way coaches and players looked at the game in both preparation and execution. A pregame speech was likely to sound like an impassioned battle cry, inspiring soldiers on their way to fight a bloody battle. Now it seems those days are behind us. Perhaps an era is lost, as a new game emerges—the old, gone forever.
Is it wrong to pay a player to hurt or injure another in a game?
Short answer: Yes
Long answer: Is the player playing the game within the framework of the rules on the field? If the answer is yes, then we're entering a gray area decided on a case-by-case basis, widely varied depending upon the perspective from which the opinion is derived.
It's fair to say players in the NFL play this game to such a level of violence that they would hope to eliminate an opponent from the game (just as the boxing analogy), without inducing any long-term damage to that player.
A hard-hitting player (as I mentioned earlier) who builds his reputation as a punishing, physically imposing force in this league will continue to get paid for doing what he does best: hurting the opponent. This is an accepted form of paying to hurt your opponent, as it rightly should be, due to the nature of the sport.
Hitting a player hard is done always with the intent to inflict pain—this, more or less, is the player's job and livelihood. So in essence, to some degree, every single team in the NFL has several players who specialize and are paid to hurt their opponents. The main difference is that these payments come in the form of an official NFL contract. Perhaps just a little bit of ethical hypocrisy here.
If the true issue originates because the payments are done outside of the salary cap, well, then we now have a salary-cap issue and are entering a realm so common in the NFL that the league would need to address all 32 teams by issuing a warning to stop any performance-based payments immediately.
However, we all know the crux of this scandal isn't about salary-cap infractions.
Should the Saints have been punished?
Short answer: Yes
Long answer: The Saints organization apparently had been warned several times to cease any bounty programs it had going a few years ago. The owner of the Saints reportedly instructed GM Mickey Loomis to eliminate current bounty programs going on. It would appear, by the evidence presented, these programs never stopped.
This is reason enough to hand down punishment to the Saints GM and any coach directly involved with the creation and operation of the bounty program.
However, given the culture of the NFL and the nature of the sport in regards to norms, the suspensions of these coaches involved were harsh, if not excessive. Guys like Gregg Williams definitely crossed the line by encouraging players to inflict serious, career-altering injuries to their opponents and fellow NFL colleagues, which can be heard in a recording from a defensive meeting before the 2011 playoff game against the 49ers.
However, does he deserve to have his entire career taken away? Should he be removed from the game forever? The way Williams blatantly lied and misled the commissioner has a lot to do with the nature of his suspension—as it should.
All things considered for Williams, though, it seems six games for the bounty and another six games for lying to the commissioner would be more fitting to the crime. As the true leader of these programs, he should be the most heavily punished. However, even his sentence was more than what seemed warranted.
In regards to the players suspended, this is an entirely different matter all together. These players were never warned. They had little control over the implementation and operation of the "bounty" and were never playing the game on the field beyond the confines of the rules. For these reasons, no player in connection to this case should be suspended for even a single game. They should have been given their warning, just as the Saints organization had been given.
This entire ordeal has put an irreversible stain on the reputations and careers of some very honorable men whom I have had the personal privilege to work with and be teammates with. There should have been consideration of the characters of the men whose lives are now dramatically altered because of all this. The time and money they will lose from the game they love is really a shame.
I want to be clear that I in no way endorse their innocence in this case, but I do condemn the irrationality of the punishment dished out directly from commissioner Roger Goodell himself in what appears to be an message to the league by setting an extreme example.
However, the crime committed by these players is in no way something unique to professional football. This entire bounty concept has been taken out of context and blown way out of proportion.
I know for a fact that that these men had no intention of inflicting any injuries that could jeopardize their opponents' careers.
Jonathan Vilma, who received the steepest penalty of an entire year's suspension without pay, was a teammate of mine while on the New York Jets. To put things into context, Vilma is one of the most respectful people I've ever known. He lives his life with dignity and pride by playing the game with passion and honor.
Never have I seen any evidence whatsoever about his character or the way he plays the game that would suggest he is a dirty player. Nor is Vilma the type of guy to actively and maliciously put another man's career in danger.
The only thing Vilma is guilty of is passionately wanting to knock Brett Favre (the NFL's most famous iron man and indestructible force) out of an NFC championship game by playing very aggressive football the right way, from snap to whistle. In wanting this, in the biggest game of his career at the time, he attempted to motivate his teammates around him by demonstrating how much this means to him and the team.
Sure, he went a bit too far with offering up money. However, under the circumstances, this act was barely even worthy of a fine in my eyes, let alone a yearlong suspension.
What about the safety of the players?
Player safety should be a top priority in this league. Unfortunately, no matter how much the commissioner would like you to think he's making it one, he really isn't. He has continued to advocate increasing the season to 18 games so that the team owners can stuff more cash down their pockets. He has rigorously denied player claims for disability and/or workers' compensation.
If Goodell's interest were really geared towards player safety, he would focus much more of his attention on higher standards for helmet technology, as well as overall improvements in equipment and playing surfaces, rather than screwing up the continuity of the game with terrible rule changes and unprecedented fines.
There has been some attention given to the dire need for improved helmets, but the implementation of these available advancements is moving slow enough to indicate just how important this matter is to Goodell. Perhaps exclusivity rights obtained by Riddell, naming it the official helmet of the NFL, factors into the process and its inefficiency in moving towards safer models.
Just think of how many press conferences we have heard of Goodell talking about the rule changes and the fining of players, and how little we have heard him talk about equipment advancements. Clearly the disparity in this ratio is glaring.
Besides, in the end, there is little to no correlation between the bounty concern and player safety. The real bounty worth attaining is always going to be job stability and the money acquired in an official contract. This particular event will change nothing about the way the game is played. It will only keep players and coaches on edge while changing the locker room vernacular forever.
What about the bigger picture?
Football is so popular in this country because of the physical nature of it. People love seeing the hard hits, the booming tackles and the big plays.
Beyond the bounty itself is this current momentum of the game and its rules. We are slowly destroying the essence of football in the name of safety. By all means, safety should be a top priority and should be improved in various ways without mutilating the game we have come to love.
We need full disclosure on all risks both long-term and short-term in this sport. However, we must also be given the freedom to both play this sport and/or watch it should we choose to do so. It should not be the right of the commissioner to take it upon himself and turn this game into a shell of what it once was in a counterproductive attempt to preserve the game's title as the most popular sport in the country.
Nor should the essence of the game be slowly choked out simply because of the litigious lens through which Goodell sees this sport—or, more appropriately, business.
Players from the '60s, '70s and '80s would be laughing at this bounty scandal. If you removed the media and its willingness to jump on anything that even remotely sounds like a story—and the very connected public relations mega-machine that drives the business end of the NFL—you would be left with a very insignificant story about a team that stepped a little out of bounds and received a fair punishment.
Instead, we have a big story snagging up headlines and a punishment unlike anything the league has ever seen—all the while giving more reason to change the nature of the sport into something even more unrecognizable than before.
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