Monday, March 5, 2012

Attempting to Rationalize The Bounty System

"Whoever is snitching on the Saints D should be ashamed of themselves. No one was talking about the ‘bounty’ when they got paid. #shame.” – Ryan Clark. 

After a season in which the NFL endured a battery of safety allegations amid the ever prominent fiery opposition to rule changes, the league is now in the midst of a new and potentially colossal development.  The once exalted defensive mind, Gregg Williams, whose coaching was one of the most integral components of the 2009-10 Super Bowl season in New Orleans, is now the face of what many fear is a “Bounty” system that permeates throughout the league.  Williams has reportedly orchestrated a clandestine system with his defensive personnel through which players were offered cash prizes for injuring opposing offensive players. 

NFL players, coaches, correspondents, and seemingly everyone in the blogosphere have been weighing in on the matter.  There are the extremists.  New Orleans should be stripped of their Super Bowl.  Or, on the other side, this has been going on for as long as there has been football, no big deal.  Then there are those more akin to my take.  Do we really think a few tens of thousands of dollars is enough to get people making millions to do something they may be doing already?  Williams’ bounty system, which, at its highest point, was about 50 grand, existed to motivate his players to engage at an intense level.

We are a sports society that constantly strives to make comparisons.  Is LeBron the next Jordan?  Is Peyton better than Brady?  And now, the most recent one: Is this worse than the original __________Gate, which is kind of like asking, “Is it more distasteful to remove the integrity of the game by blatantly cheating or by practicing unscrupulous policies?”

My answer to the latter: What’s the difference?

Like spygate, the response around the league has to make you wonder just how far reaching this bounty system goes.  Is this an isolated incident or is pay-for-injury an omnipresent policy? 

Football is a brutal sport and its players are modern-day gladiators, quite literally risking their lives on each and every play for the enjoyment of frail, physically inferior fans who wish they could swap places with the “heroes” they see on the gridiron while knowing absolutely nothing as to what such a job truly entails.  Perhaps this is what makes professional athletes so admirable; they do what we cannot.  They remain unscathed by the type of contact that would send most of us into an aspirin-induced weeklong catatonic state.  And so, they become role models regardless of how many insistences of perceived narcissism, immorality, and/or violence should have convinced us long ago that the majority of professional athletes are nothing of the sort. 
Gregg Williams will be under some major fire from the
media, but he is just one piece of a league-wide hypocrisy 
Yet, time and time again, we hold athletes to the standards we hold ourselves despite the fact that it is those exact personality traits we find so detestable that made them successful.  Athletes who remain humble on the camera and noble on and off the field may be these things, but do not think for one second that they have not done nor will not do anything it takes to win. 

So, then, is the bounty system everywhere in football?  The guts of the issue comes down to this: Do we really want to know

What is the NFL?  The question seems simple enough but your answer to that question probably has a lot more to do with your take on unspoken strategies than you may initially think. 

If you think the NFL is a business and should be conducted as such, you probably find the bounty system despicable.  Trying to knock someone out of a game would be like downloading child pornography on the computer of your boss – you want to end his career.  Both seem inherently wrong; you’re destroying the livelihood of an innocent so you can potentially earn a little more money.  Never mind the fact that the league wants to expand it’s regular season and can only capitalize on the increased revenue that comes with such a move if the players can actually make it through a season. 

If you think the NFL is a form of entertainment, encouraging injury disgusts you as well.  Players are famous personalities whose lives we envy.  They get paid to have fun.  Nobody wants to see his/her favorite player get deliberately knocked into retirement.  Watching football on Sunday afternoons is a leisure activity.  Controversy interrupts the lighthearted fun. 

But, if you think the NFL is a physical gauntlet between the meanest, strongest, and most competitive bastards on the planet, you probably feel differently.  The best players are the ones who intimidate, play though pain, and will stop at nothing to reach their goal of success.  Hits are hard for a reason; you want to end people’s careers and they want to end yours.    

The truth is, most of us recognize professional football as a combination of all these things.  Are fans just softer now than ever before?  Disturbing information about the effects of persistent head injuries would do it but does this make the average player or fan want to see any type of regulations?  Some retired players are suing the NFL.  Others seem to pride themselves on the beatings they dished out and survived.  Mark Schlereth boasts that he cannot fully lift one of his legs.  

There will always be a culture of toughness and intensity in football.  Some players seem unfazed, but there are those who are weary about news of bounties and concussions.  Are some of these apparent tough guys just striving to maintain said image?  And even if they’re being genuine, is it the responsibility of the public and those removed from the actual hand-to-hand combat to intervene?  They all tell us we don’t understand football.  We tell them they don’t understand science and medicine.  You can try to eliminate direct financial benefits from injuring players (bounty system), but self-conceived and self-driven attempts to injure players for indirect financial benefits (other team loses, you look better, you get paid more) are far more difficult.  If all it takes are a few tens of thousands of dollars to motivate multi-millionaires, is such reform even worth the effort? 
This Sports Illustrated cover story from the summer
of 2007 is among its most influential ever; the
perception of hard hits was forever changed  
From 2003 to 2006, one of the most popular segments on ESPN (ES-freakin-PN) was a bit called Jacked Up! which I am sure we all remember.  It seems downright incomprehensible that the network highlighted the most violent hits of the week in a positive light.  Amid the mainstream increased research on player head injuries, the shtick was shitcanned faster than you can say “Michael Irvin.”  Yet, there seems to be nothing wrong with creating an “Any Era Team” which glorifies hard-hitting and injury-enduring players.  Ndamukong Suh was a villain all season, but apparently his perceived hotheaded misbehavior is somehow rewarded with a spot on the team when you replace the word “dirty” with “tough.”  I fail to see the distinction.  We are outraged when players intentionally injure the opposition and when teams are flippant in concussion regulations.  Is it not hypocritical for us to then praise guys who inflict big hits and play injured?   

24 hour sports coverage, twitter, and YouTube let us dive into NFL locker rooms like never before.  Are we really so naïve to think this is the last and/or worst thing we will find out about NFL teams?  Will there not be an even worse development a year from now?  The Jets made a human wall on the sidelines last season and the football world cried out for justice as if this was some type of heinous crime.  It’s not even worth mentioning anymore.  People want to clean up the game, which is all fine and noble, but we aren’t talking about the world of puppetry or ceramics.  It’s going to take a whole lot more than fines, interventions, and independent doctors on the sidelines to do that in the fierce world of football.  We will need to alter the fabric of the league in ways we are yet to seriously consider.  The question is, do we want to?


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