I have just finished reading Peter King’s Sports Illustrated article and associated sidebars by Jim Lawrence, Andrew Trotter and Tim Layden about the latest revelations of calculated violence in the NFL.
If you’ve been unaware, the league has alleged that the New Orleans Saints, under former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (now with the St. Louis Rams), ran an over-the-top “bounty system” that targeted specific opponents and rewarded players for causing concussions and knocking people out of games.
When I picked up the magazine, I imagined my reaction would be one of disgust, outrage or both. But instead, I find myself filled with a profound sadness over the basic inhumanity and mindlessness that the alleged behavior represents.
Before I start ranting, let’s get something on the table. I firmly agree with Vince Lombardi’s quote that “football is not a contact sport—it’s a collision sport.” I was not in the slightest dismayed when my son, playing linebacker for his high-school varsity, came home one evening and told me, “You know, I really like to hit people.”
At its most basic, that’s what football is about—hitting people. Hitting them hard. Intimidating them. Winning the war of the mind, as well as the body.
Plus, as my son discovered, it’s fun.
My own football experience was quite limited—intramurals in college and two weeks of spring ball one year in high school. Even so, I enjoyed getting out on the field and mixing it up. A few winters ago when I cracked a rib skiing, I was exhilarated. My first thought was, “I haven’t felt something like that since football.”
But there’s a line—and it’s not even a fine line—between playing hard and offering a bonus for trying to injure someone. As King points out in his article, it’s expressly forbidden in the labor agreement between the NFL and the players’ association.
That’s significant, because the association is the players’ acknowledgement that, even though they compete against each other, they are, in fact, colleagues. Unlike many fans, I enjoy seeing opposing players chatting after games. It’s a pleasant reminder that most players, it seems, oppose each other with mutual friendship and professional respect.
But when colleagues start trying to take each other out of games—especially for a bounty—it’s more than just troubling. It’s evidence that the sport—loved and supported by millions, including me—is descending into barbarism.
Furthermore, far from being an expression of machismo, it’s actually one of cowardice. If the only way you can win is to knock your opponent out of the game, then you’re admitting that you are, in fact, inferior and afraid to face your competitor’s talent.
That’s not sport.
Sport is about many things, and one of them is courage. If you can’t play aggressively and courageously, and still keep your conduct and intentions within the bounds of collegiality, then you’re not a sportsman. You’re a thug.
And if you’re doing it for a bounty on a particular player, then you’re little more than a paid assassin, trying to kill the career of a colleague.
With its speed and high impact, pro football is dangerous enough without players intentionally trying to damage each other. There’s a high risk to the body and, as we increasingly see, the brain. Players who still insist on tackling head-first or helmet-to-helmet are courting injury to themselves as well as their opponents.
Peter King’s SI article predicts that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s response will be “swift and severe.” Let’s hope so.
The NFL is inherently a rough place, and that’s fine. But it needs to operate with a well-understood code of decency, sportsmanship and collegiality. Now is the time to send the unequivocal message.
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