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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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