The coach who never punts

A high school coach in Arkansas has developed a new football strategy:  His team never punts.  And he always employs the on-side kick.  Coach Kevin Kelley developed these tactics from a study of football statistics; though the team often gives up the ball on downs, the increased number of possessions pays off in the long run.  (Go here for the math.)  The coach has an .833 record since adopting this strategy, and his team has won the state championship three times.  This season the team is 10-0.  Details and a video of how and why this works after the jump. [Read more...]

NFL’s bounty-for-injury scandal

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?

via NFL bounty scandal forces everyone to confront sport’s violent appeal – The Washington Post.

Any idea what that would look like?

Casuistry and the NFL

You’ve probably heard by now about the practice in the National Football League of paying defensive players bonuses for hits that took out or injured opposing players.  Nick Lannon at the very fine website Mockingbird examines the “casuistry”–that is, the moral rationalization–that some players are indulging in to justify the practice:

The recent revelations about the New Orleans Saints’ “bounty” program have rocked the talking-head world at ESPN. The Saints, apparently, had a program, administered by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (who ran similar programs at previous teams), wherein players received cash bonuses for inflicting injuries on opposing players. For instance, knocking a quarterback out of the game might get you $10,000, and getting him carted off on a stretcher might earn you $20,000. No one seems to be particularly surprised that this kind of thing was going on; many have suggested that this occurs on every team, and that the Saints mistake was writing it all down and keeping track.

I don’t want to get into the morality of paying players to intentionally injure other players, although I will say that it seems an awful lot like criminal activity (aggravated assault) to me. When Tonya Harding paid her boyfriend to take out Nancy Kerrigan, people went to prison. It has been notoriously difficult to prove “intent” on the athletic field, but with documented records of who got what for hurting whom, intent seems a bit easier to prove. Alternatively, I want to use these revelations (and especially the response of several former players) as an opportunity to talk about a theological idea: casuistry.

Over the last couple of days, I’ve heard both Mike Golic and Marcellus Wiley (former players) say that everyone is overreacting to this story. They say that they “went after the quarterback” as hard as they could on every play, and couldn’t have done more if they’d been paid to. Their argument was, in effect, that the devastation of a hit would be the same, whatever the motivation of the player delivering it. Put another way, they said something like: “Football is a violent game, and people are going to get hurt playing it. We all know that going in. Paying people a little extra to put a little extra on some hits isn’t going to change anything.”

Casuistry might well be defined as “an attempt, via nit-picking, to appear to obey a rule whilst breaking it.” Our own DPotter took a crack at defining it HERE. It seems that it would be clear to the most uneducated observer that while a player might not be able to hit a quarterback harder to earn their little bonus, they might well be able to hit them in the knee or in the head. And since when is “I play a game that is inherently violent” an acceptable excuse for attempting to injure another person? The best example of casuistry of all time is this 2005 story in The Telegraph, the first line of which is, “Machines will perform euthanasia on terminally ill patients in Israel under legislation devised not to offend Jewish law, which forbids people taking human life.”

via Hit ‘Em For Money, Hurt ‘Em For a Little More | Mockingbird.

Legalists do this loophole hunting all the time as a way to justify their bad behavior, finding a technicality that allows them to transgress while still feeling self-righteous.  Can you think of other examples of this kind of casuistry?

Football as the collision of Hobbes & Locke

Gerard Baker of England has become a convert to American football.  He explains why:

In its energy and complexity, football captures the spirit of America better than any other cultural creation on this continent, and I don’t mean because it features long breaks in which advertisers get to sell beer and treatments for erectile dysfunction. It sits at the intersection of pioneering aggression and impossibly complex strategic planning. It is a collision of Hobbes and Locke; violent, primal force tempered by the most complex set of rules, regulations, procedures and systems ever conceived in an athletic framework.

Soccer is called the beautiful game. But football is chess, played with real pieces that try to knock each other’s brains out. It doesn’t get any more beautiful than that.

via Gerard Baker: Football Is Better Than Soccer – WSJ.com.

As the bowl season get under way, let us contemplate the nature of football and why we like it so much.

HT:  Ace of Spades


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