The NFL, Bounties and the Drive to Hide the Violence

There is no morality in war—but that doesn’t stop our political and military leaders from insisting otherwise. Invariably, the enemy consists of immoral, medieval cave dwellers who respect neither human life nor the sacred rules of combat. Our side, on the other hand, engages in “surgical strikes” to limit “collateral damage” in a noble effort to liberate the shackled from tyranny. They tell us to ignore the innocent killed in drone attacks, the piling body counts, and just remember that our enemies are savages because they don’t play by civilized rules.

This Orwellian staple came to mind when news broke of the NFL’s latest public relations debacle: that the New Orleans Saints defense targeted opponents with a “bounty” system. Normally we should have little patience with comparing the reality of war to a game like football. But here the metaphor works because we have that same heightened hypocrisy where the overlords of official violence condemn the carnage outside of their control.

Because former New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams instituted this “bounty program” that allegedly involved paying players for “knockout” or “cart-off” hits, the Saints will face an avalanche of suspensions, fines and penalties. The players involved and Coach Williams might, according to Sports Illustrated, even be liable for criminal prosecution. They will also have to carry the shame of “all that’s wrong with sports” as columnists try to out-fulminate their competitors. [There are so many overwrought words to choose from, but the winner of the Scarlett O’Hara Award has to go to Bill Plaschke for calling these matters “sanctioned evil.”]

The NFL is of course, aghast and appalled. In the words of Commissioner Roger Goodell, “The [anti-]bounty rule promotes two key elements of NFL football: player safety and competitive integrity. It is our responsibility to protect player safety and the integrity of our game, and this type of conduct will not be tolerated. We have made significant progress in changing the culture with respect to player safety and we are not going to relent. We have more work to do and we will do it.”

And here we have the problem.

This is the same Roger Goodell who once employed a league doctor that denied a connection between football and concussions.

This is the same Goodell whose sport sees its retired players die decades before the typical American male; whose employees face patterns of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and suicidal depression.

This is the same Goodell whose sport saw former Chicago Bear great Dave Duerson, crippled by mental illness, end his life by shooting himself in the chest. Why the chest? He wanted his brain studied so the world would know what professional football did to him.

This is the same Goodell who almost cancelled the entire 2011 season because he wanted the players to have to endure two more games. More games means more money, health be damned. In other words, Roger Goodell isn’t exactly Gandhi here. He’s more like General Westmoreland, insisting that all is moving in the right direction while napalm stings the nose.

Goodell is nervous because if there is anything that could endanger this golden goose, it’s the idea that the three and a half hours of commodified violence we hold so dear might have an ugly and invisible human cost. Owners want us to imagine that players are like “Cleatus the NFL on Fox robot”: an indestructible, faceless, cyborg. If we start to register the real effects of NFL Sunday and that encourages generation of parents take their own children off this assembly line of concussions, the league’s cultural and financial dominance will be in peril.

The players’ response has also been in line with this effort to keep the realities of violence out of the public eye. Almost to a person, they have stepped forward to say, in the words of one, “ ‘Pay for performance’ systems are a time-honored locker room tradition.”

On the NFL’s website, former Saint Darren Sharper is quoted as saying, “I think this is something that, from when I got in the league in 1997, has happened thousands and thousands of times over.”

NFL.com also quotes a series of Twitter messages from players, best summed ex NFL player Damien Woody who tweeted, “This ‘bounty’ program happens all around the league…not surprising.”

They even quote New York Jet Trevor Pryce, who said to the New York Times, “It’s pretty much standard operating procedure. It made our special teams better. I know dudes who doubled their salary from it. Trust me, it happens in some form in any locker room. It’s like a democracy, the inmates governing themselves.”

Leave aside that curious but revealing characterization of the NFL as a “democracy” whose citizens are inmates. The NFL’s website—think Pravda with better graphic design—seems to be saying by highlighting these comments, both “this violence will not stand” and “this is just the way things happen in the locker room.” All the sports radio debates have been framed the same way. One side is appalled that violent motivators like a “bounty system” exists. The other rolls their eyes and says, “It happens on every team. Get over it.”

Neither side gets at the truth. This is an inherently dirty game with a real body count. Its main business isn’t a race to the Super Bowl but to present raw violence in a way that’s palatable for mass consumption. The more comfortable we are with violence, the more successful the NFL becomes. The minute we squirm, they lose. Like war, as long as the reporters are embedded and no one sees the coffins, business can proceed as planned. The tragedy is that often its only after players retire that they see the reality of an unequal partnership where only one side really walks away from the table.

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To The Heart of The Matter

That last paragraph is powerful! Well said!

Bring me the head of that QB

The violence in football is the achilles heel that might kill it, or athe very least relegate it to "club" status where players would play for the love of the game. I don't doubt that players created pools(bounties) to see who could knock opposing players(especially QB's) from the game. These occurred more likely with the knowledge of the coaches. There is a difference with the coached starting a pool as opposed to the players but the difference isn't that great. And Goodell can't fine all the players so he'll do the next best thing and come down hard on the Saints' coaches. In a way the Saints give the commish wiggle room to fight for players' safety and yet not indict all of them.

With respect to Duerson my local rag of a newspaper pointed out that when Duerson was working for the NFLPA a few years ago he was a major stumbling block for retired players trying to get their claims for remuneration from their injuries related to their playing days. I also applaud Aikman for wondering what the future of the NFL will be especially with the concussion issues. And ,of course, the real culprit in this is the American public who love the game. To this I plead guitly as charged.

Last Paragraph

Yes, Jonathan - indeed a powerful wrap up... reminiscent to Dave's interview with Mumia Abu-Jamal in "Welcome to the Terrordome" when Mumia commented:

“Sports often mimic the most repressive agencies in the broader life, e.g., the military.”

And the Pravda line in hilarious... and true.

High School Football

Maybe someone who is a fan or more knowledgeable about the culture can point me in the right direction.

With what is now known about football and brain injuries, why do parents allow their sons to play football ? I read of a three million dollar settlement against a high school for a student who injured his brain playing football. Wouldn't insurance premiums have to be going up ? Why aren't perennially cash strapped schools dropping football ?

I read of special insurance and teaching awareness and managing concussions but how is it possible that parents risk their children's brains in order to maintain a tradition ? Ending high school football wouldn't necessarily end professional football. And there are ways in which the sport could become better for the players and fans if the general public's obsession and financial support were diminished.

Well . . .

Who killed Davey Moore?

indeed

The bounty scandal suggests an even more explicit NFL / military comparison. The US had a bounty system in place under the Bush administration (not sure if one is still in place). Many detainees at Guantanamo Bay were turned over to the US by Pakistan through this bounty system. I just wrote about this here: http://sea2012.tumblr.com/post/18906080741/bounty-hunting

I've also compared violence in the NFL to Cleatus the Fox sports robot: http://sea2012.tumblr.com/post/10568182437/a-thing-of-beauty-is-a-joy-forever

But compared to Dave Zirin, I may be in a greater position of moral ambiguity. Because I became a fan of the NFL a few years ago and I remain one. My team just won the super bowl - it's hard to turn away now. At least Eli Manning unambiguously spoke against NFL bounty systems. It's all I've got.

On the other side

Not to defend the NFL or Goodell, but any reason to get a handle on purposeful injury should be rewarded. I'd like it if the leaders were conscious of risk and cared about players but if law suits do the job then so be it. Still, it cannot be ignored that player culture is such that players openly support playing while hurt, lying about concussions, and taking medicines widely know as being harmful in the long run (re: Brian Urlacher). For the flaws of Goodell and his leadership, he has started to turn the gears in favor of player safety which may be for the better despite players (former and active) suggesting it is making the game "softer."

why bounties if they already play that way

The defense of the Saints by so many meat head fans is that the game is played that way, anyway. So, basically, nobody should care. If the game is already played that way, then why would any team need to use bounties? I mean, they're trying to hurt the opponents anyway, right? Something isn't adding up.

Do you people even like football?

Sports, even football, should be about the competition going all out and seeing who is best not trying to get someone hurt. This is different from being aggressive because football isn't about hitting someone just to injure someone. These guys went out not just to win the game but to INJURE someone. The NFL has to do something about this.

I don't know if Dave at this point likes football. He bitches that football is too violent and doesn't care about their players. They decide to do something about it and fine a team for being violent on purpose and you bitch about that. What can the NFL do right? So do you want to see hits to the head or not? From what I get you like the idea of a bounty program, am I wrong? Or if the NFL doesn't like the idea of teams doing this then they should just stop football? Just be honest Dave and write a column calling an end to football.

I don't want to end football

Jason - I don't think football should be "banned". But I think we have to start being honest about the fact that it has a 100% injury rate (kickers not withstanding) and that anyone who thinks Roger Goodel is deeply concerned about violence, needs their own head examined.

Why shouldn't football be banned?

The sophomoric jibes from Jason aside, Mr. Zirin seems to have hit a stumbling block - given the horrific injury rate, why shouldn't football be banned? Just so some poor young males can get devastated for Mr. Zirin's amusement or commentary opportunities? The playing of sports, like the waging of war, is causing enormous injury and early death rates - and they should be left untouched out of some libertarian zeal for allowing self-injury?

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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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