Last week it was revealed that the New Orleans Saints defensive unit had been running a bounty program, monetarily rewarding players for certain hits that inflicted pain or injury on the desired target. While football is obviously a tough man’s game, the scalps the Saints collected included the likes of Brett Favre and Kurt Warner, beloved ambassadors and icons of the game who have since retired. While it would be naive to think the Saints were running the only bounty program in all of the NFL, was it still a big deal and what would be a deserving punishment in the grand scheme of things? Brian and Luke bump heads mano-a-mano in this week’s showdown.
I’m not here to say that endorsing bounty programs is a good idea. I’m also not here to say that the New Orleans Saints organization doesn’t deserve some severe sanctions for participating in this particular brand of savageness. But I will say this: There is absolutely no way that the Saints are the only NFL franchise participating in this sort of behavior. Any delusion otherwise completely contradicts the entire demeanor of American Football as a whole.
We’re talking about a game where, in 16 games, more players are lost to injury than any other team sport. We’ve seen knees buckled, concussions dished, ribs snapped, careers ended, and all of it on the gridiron. We’re talking about a sport where an all-pro linebacker named James Harrison is publicly on record as saying he’s far more interested in hurting people than he is playing football. We’re talking about a sport where countless replays of Joe Theisman’s leg snapping were shown because, hey, that’s what the people want to see.
This is a violent, violent sport, played by men who hype themselves up in near-warlike fashion to compete. Running back LaDanian Tomlinson once said that playing running back was like being in a car crash every week. How on earth do we expect that this sort of practice wouldn’t be present? Isn’t it foolish, almost disingenuous of us to expect physical, violent production on the field, but without any overhanging dubious behavior? That seems idealist to a fault.
It’s also pretty unclear how much these incentives made a difference. Your average professional football player is perfectly willing to damage other people without any monetary benefit. It’s a sport about hitting people. A particularly bone-crushing shot is immortalized on SportsCenter every Sunday night. We, as a people, have no right to be outraged. This is what we asked for. Perhaps we preferred it to be handled a little more honorably than the Saints’ methodology, but this is no time to be on a high horse.
Look, I’m not dumb. I know there are things that go on in a football locker room at just about any level that would shock and horrify anyone who had never stepped foot in one and this bounty program is just another one of those things. But we’re talking about player health here and, as we all know, that has been a pretty hot-button topic these last few seasons with the increased awareness of the long-lasting effects of certain injuries players can endure for the rest of their lives. To say that it isn’t horrifying for a team to reward their players for actively trying to compromise the health of another player would just be wrong. Sure, it’s the reality of the situation, but it’s still just plain wrong.
With the message the NFL has been trying to send for a while now, this couldn’t have come at a worst time for the Saints, who are believed to have been using the bounty program throughout the course of their 2009 championship run. While this case probably won’t hang some big grey cloud over the Saints’ championship year with an asterisk to accompany it, it just takes away from any notion of sportsmanship that you thought might have still been present in football.
I understand that it is idealist to not believe that any wrongdoing goes on behind closed doors in a football meeting room and I’m not calling for a nation-wide investigation of every minute detail that goes into producing a product on the football field. But is it really so much to ask that a team not reward their players for potentially shortening the playing career, or even the lifespan, of the person they just collided with?
Football is a hard-hitting game and that’s part of why we all watch it every weekend. Unfortunately, injuries are just a part of the equation that goes into making the product we love so very much. But slipping someone a thousand or two thousand bucks every time the medical team has to bring out a stretcher while that player’s family hopelessly looks on in angst just doesn’t sit well with me, which is why I believe the Saints’ defensive unit that was part of the whole bounty program deserve whatever penalty they get.
Luke Winkie and Brian Bogart