Wednesday, March 7, 2012

How the Saints' bounty program turned tackles into felonies

(Editor's note: The Saratogian did a series on concussions that can be found here, here and here.)

Many of us who follow sports cannot escape the crush of concussion-related stories that have cropped up recently highlighting their danger and long-term consequences. It is something all sports have become much more aware of and are becoming more proactive in preventing, especially in the NHL and NFL.

Protecting the skull of a player seems a relative no-brainer, and ignoring the well-being of their fellow players is the worst part of the New Orleans Saints bounty program. By paying players to knock out specific opponents by any means necessary, the individuals involved in the hits-for-hire program were directly undermining the safety measures put in place to keep their co-workers safe for their own personal gain, and their intent to injure their fellow players became an on-field felony.

The players performing the hits are those who know the grim consequences of their profession. Baseball and basketball have had their share of head injuries, but those tend to be more accidental in nature, like the Carlos Beltran-Mike Cameron collision in the outfield; a player hit in the head by a pitch; a basketball player being struck by a swinging elbow or hitting his head on the court after a fall.

In football, head injuries — or any injuries for that matter — are supposed to be collateral damage, a common misfortune of which players endure and attempt to push through for the good of the team and as a symbol of American toughness and perseverance. These men forge through the natural elements of weather and the obstacles of their attacking opponents to succeed with their brothers in arms. The game became a metaphor of those who performed under duress to give us the lives we now enjoy. Did your grandfather leave the mine, railroad or building site crying because it was tough, or did he push through regardless?

In that sense, we can excuse the violence as being part of the pageantry and performing with the risk of injury as something like bravery because that is part of the purity of the game. The pretense of “nobody being hurt on purpose” endured, even as some players openly enjoying their role as hard-hitters and became famous for it. We could justify them as the wild cards, Tasmanian Devil-types who, when evaded or beaten, gave us one more reason to celebrate the skill-player’s triumph.

With the exposure of the bounty program the veil is gone, and behind it is ruthlessness, selfishness and no humanity whatsoever. Payment for taking a player out of a game — and in the cases of Brett Favre and Kurt Warner, ending entire careers — is more akin to assault than a sack. In the world outside the gridiron, a premeditated attack like that is aggravated battery, a felony. (Granted, the game itself was built on an act that could be argued to be battery as a misdemeanor.) The intent takes these hits to another level, from something we can support to something we cannot tolerate. The line has been found and crossed.

Rumors that these types of programs may have expanded beyond Gregg Williams’ influence suggest a league filled with players that were more concerned with their personal brand or a little extra cash than their fellow players.

Ask yourself if you could break another man’s arm or drive their head into the ground outside the means of a normal tackle for money. That money, whether by the bounty program or through an improved contract later, is the personal gain of the tackler at the expense of another man’s well-being. It is an insane offer made possible by an insane program.

Hard-hitting players are well-known in the NFL. Their style of play is typified and celebrated during highlight reel shows and on Youtube. Some of my personal favorite defenders are the ones I know to keep an eye on should they break toward a receiver and crush him a nano-second after the ball touches his fingertips. Those big hits bring back audiences and fire up crowds, earn defenders contracts that get them paid. I am no exception when we hold these players to a double standard, and hope that the league is doing enough to protect the players who are being hit.
Later, when we see the big hits and the prayer circles, we believe that the intent was not there, and that these men are all in this together to put on a show and make a fine living for their families, but earnestly do not to see one of their co-workers permanently injured. The bounty program means they never cared and that a team sports still had elements of every-man-for-himself.

Were it not for the stories brought up regarding older players and head injuries, maybe it wouldn’t mean so much. The sport would just be a little more brutal, but broken bones can be mended. Head injuries are different.

Chris P. Pierce said in his article on the subject for, “We may well be reaching something of a tipping point in our relationship with our true national pastime. Football was always a deal we made with ourselves. We adopted it for its brutality, which was embedded in a context that happened to be perfectly suited to television and to gambling, but which we could convince ourselves was only incidental to our enjoyment because it was only incidental to the game itself. But the players got bigger, and even the unsolicited hits got louder, and the damage to the athletes soon became too obvious to ignore. Dave Duerson kills himself. Chris Henry dies at 26, and an autopsy shows that he has the brain of a 70-year-old Alzheimer's patient. Terry Bradshaw admits that the six concussions he suffered while playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers have cost him a good piece of his short-term memory. Science, that great murderer of comfortable illusions, continues to increasingly undermine the bargain we'd cut for ourselves with the game.”

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has yet to come down on Williams and the Saints for their actions, but a stand has to be made. Football is not meant to be a game of felons.

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