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The Decline of the NFL?

We know football's a brutal sport, but Bountygate reveals its barbarity.

by James Leroy Wilson
March 6, 2012

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The Decline of the NFL?

In 2008, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichik was fined $500,000, and his team lost a first-round draft pick, after it was revealed that he had videotaped the defensive signals of the other team during games in violation of league rules.

This story quotes the pertinent section of the rulebook and gives Belichik's explanation for his actions. His main mistake is that he didn't contact the league office for an explanation of the rule, and he instead interpreted it himself.

In contrast, over the last three seasons the New Orleans Saints defense ran a performance-based "bonus" system that was very clearly in violation of the rules (which are quoted here). On Friday, March 2, it was reported that former Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams managed a pool of cash to reward players for big plays such as interceptions and forcing fumbles. But it was also a "bounty" program. His players would be rewarded $1,500 for knocking an opposing player out of the game, and an additional $1,000 for a "cart-off."

Williams issued an apology after getting caught, which tells you how truly sorry he really is.

Head Coach Sean Payton is reported to have been aware of this program. The scandal is called Bountygate.

My initial thought was that both Payton and Williams, who is now with the St. Louis Rams, should both be suspended for a year from the NFL. Even after some in the media said that the practice was commonplace around the league, it still seemed most sensible to me to come down hard on those who did get caught.

In football, the two vilest forms of cheating...

  • Faking an injury, to stop the clock or to slow down a fast-paced offense, and
  • Intentionally inflicting injury.

They are vile because they are the hardest to prove. Who's to say the player didn't really get hurt on a particular play? Who's to say that a hit intentionally or unintentionally caused an injury?

When evidence that such tactics were employed, or that there was a conspiracy to employ them, the consequences should be extremely harsh on those involved.

The strange thing about the bounty system is that it doesn't make sense, financially. As former Saint safety Darren Sharper explains, why try to injure someone when the team would get penalized, and you would be fined a far larger amount than the bounty reward?

That made me wonder if there was nuance in the system. Were players rewarded for knocking out players even if the team was penalized on the play? Would they be rewarded if the NFL fined them afterwards? Or would they be rewarded for knocking out players only with "clean" hits?

As of this writing, this is unknown to the public.

But what really makes me wonder is, with a superstar quarterback in Drew Brees, why did head coach Sean Payton tolerated a bounty system for his defense?

If Brees was knocked out of a game, or if he was knocked out of the league and spent the rest of his in a wheelchair, and it came out that the player who paralyzed him was paid $2,500 for it, would Payton be happy? Would he say, "That's just part of the game?"

If so, it's not a very appealing game. Greg Couch says that more parents are reluctant about their kids playing football. ESPN commentator Michael Wilbon doesn't want his son to play organized football. Hall of Fame qb Troy Aikman, citing the seemingly insoluble concussion problem, said that if he had a son, "I don't know if I would be encouraging him to play."

Aikman also predicts a decline for the league, citing over-saturation of the game. Perhaps what's keeping the game afloat is fantasy football. When 7-9 teams can make the playoffs and a 9-7 team has won the Super Bowl, it is evident that the regular season games don't mean all that much. People really don't need to watch all these games if they have better things to do.

Moreover, fans up until now have understood football to be a brutal game, but they didn't realize that players would be rewarded for putting each other in the hospital. If the league's top coaches condoned or tolerate such bounties, what message does that send to players from the college level all the way down to the pee-wee leagues?

Would you want you son to play on offense, knowing that the defense wants to hospitalize you? Would you want your son to play defense, teaching him that deliberately injuring people is okay if it helps him win or get ahead?

The more that thought is repulsive to more people, the sooner the NFL will decline in popularity.

If the NFL is to maintain its credibility, Payton and Williams must suffer the most severe punishments in NFL history, and the NFL should also proclaim that, henceforth, any participants in a player-run bounty or bonus system will meet the same punishment.

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