One of the things we enjoy about professional football, frankly, is its violence. And as players get bigger and faster and meaner, we like it more and more. Still, we have ideals of sportsmanship. When a player gets hurt, both sides respectfully applaud as he gets carted off the field, and when it looks like a spinal injury, everyone piously says, “our prayers are with him.” But now it turns out that at least one team (and probably more) has been paying bounties for injuring players on the other team. The rate was $1,500 for inflicting a “cart off” injury. One player (not a coach) reportedly offered $10,000 for anyone who would put Brett Favre out of the game. The NFL came down hard on the New Orleans Saints, the team that formalized such bonuses, suspending their coach, assistant coach, a former coach, and even the general manager.
Thomas Boswell, one of the better sportswriters, acknowledges the cognitive dissonance between the appeal of the sport’s violence and the sense of going too far.
The NFL is in a fight for its soul, or maybe for its life. And it knows it.
We won’t grasp for a decade, maybe not for a generation, just how big a problem the NFL has in the wake of its pay-for-injury bounty scandal; which comes on the heels of studies showing the long-term brain damage caused by repetitive blows to the head, even in youth football; which comes on top of lawsuits by former NFL players who feel that premature bad health, mental illness or death may be related to the league’s disregard for their safety.
That’s a mouthful. But there’s a reason. The NFL’s half-century rise to power and profits has always been tied to its limited concern, tantamount to a lack of accountability, for the damage done to its athletes. Violence and danger are a core component of the NFL product. Too much safety is bad for business. . . .
Eventually, as players got bigger, faster and stronger, but the game’s rules and equipment couldn’t keep pace, an inflection point, and a crisis, had to arrive. Once a sport decides that too many quarterbacks and stars are being broken, and that you finally have to calibrate your carnage, how do you control that process, especially when you discover that a Super Bowl champion offers bounties for injuries — and that they won’t stop, even when the entire league threatens them? You can’t. You just cope with the crash.
The severity of Wednesday’s punishment to the New Orleans Saints, their coach, general manager and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has little to do with the league’s ethics and everything to do with its fear. You don’t see the NFL scared very often, but it is now and it should be. This isn’t just a month of reckoning for one team, but a trial for the NFL’s culture. . . .
The distance between old-fashioned hard-hitting and outright dirty play has always been bright as orange paint to anyone who ever actually played. If you hear an ex-NFL player say it’s a “fine line,” what you’ve learned is that he’s lived in the belly of the big-time football beast for much too long.
However, what we’ve got on our plate now is miles beyond such tame fare. There is a 100-yard-wide “line” between occasional dirty play and what the Saints did: a complete chain-of-command endorsement of trying to inflict “cart-off” level injuries ($1,500 each) with late hits, blows to the head and shots at the knees — all against the rules — all tolerated or even cheered.
The NFL’s corporate response — kneecap the Saints — falls squarely within the sport’s “pragmatic” traditions. Once the general public changes its opinion of the basic nature of a sport, and decides that it’s fundamentally uncomfortable with the values that the game represents, many things can change. Slow but inexorable go together. . . .
A sport’s flaw becomes a huge problem if it is also a central driver of its popularity. Of team sports, only football suffers from this combination. The more you remove fear and danger, the more you undercut the NFL’s power. Nobody pays to watch touch football.
The NFL is now at its crossroads. Can the sport find the right rules, the improved equipment, the necessary culture change — like the massacre of the Saints — to create a new balance between terror and some semblance of safety and honorable play?
Any idea what that would look like?