I'm not going to defend the Saints. But I'm not going to castigate them, either. Because—much like Jake—I'm not a Jesuitical, violence-parsing football moralist. Unlike you, and definitely unlike former Washington Redskins lineman George Starke, who on talk radio earlier this week said that back in the 1970s, coach George Allen put a New Orleans-esque $200 bounty on Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach.
"The bounty was to knock him out," Starke explained. "Not hurt him. Let's be clear about that. Knock him out."
This is how football moralizers see things. Many players, too. Plus the readers who took offense at my recent Guardian UK column on BountyGate. For them, there is a fundamental, neo-Victorian philosophical difference between hitting another human being with the intent to hurt and hitting them with the intent knock 'em into next year via a clean, hard tackle. It's a world view best articulated by ESPN.com's Gregg Easterbrook:
There will always be injuries in football. But the intent of a football player never should be to injure; the intent should be to hit hard, legally. American law places considerable emphasis on intent. Intending to harm your opponent changes football from something manly and sportsmanlike into something brutish and disgusting ...
Here's the thing about broken ribs, torn ligaments and concussed brains: Honorable intentions don't make them any less painful, severe or real. Harm is harm. Damage is damage. Both are baked into football. Sorry, Hampton, but neither is the unfortunate byproduct of the otherwise noble pursuit of touchdowns—the carnage is the inevitable, inescapable outcome of hitting, blocking and tackling as they relate to physics and human biology.
As such, intent is irrelevant. I mean, maybe I'm not trying to break your jaw—but if we're playing dodgeball and I'm throwing bricks because bricks are a part of the game, what do you think is going to happen?
Also note: None of the Saints have been accused of doing anything egregiously improper and un-football-like on the field, like biting Brett Favre or twisting Kurt Warner's arm in the manner of an animal balloon. To the contrary, New Orleans sent Warner into retirement with a clean n' legal open-field hit, a blow some might call manly. Even sportsmanlike. Asked about BountyGate by Sports Illustrated's Peter King, Favre didn't express any bitterness.
Rather, he said the Saints were just playing football.
Football moralists don't want to hear that. Football moralists want their violent cake without getting bloodstains on their shirts. Football moralists are fixated on intent because it props up the rather lucrative delusion that the game is more akin to arm wrestling than to boxing, to a rugged, red-blooded character-building experience than to glorified human cockfighting.
Over at Grantland, inimitable BS-buster Charlie Pierce popped this Hindenburg of convenient cognitive dissonance more eloquently than I ever could:
What the [New Orleans] Saints will truly be punished for is the unpardonable crime of ripping aside the veil. For years, sensitive people in and out of my business drew a bright moral line between boxing and football. Boxing, they said, gently stroking their personal ethical code as if they were petting a cat, is a sport where the athletes are deliberately trying to injure each other. On the other hand, football is a violent sport wherein crippling injuries are merely an inevitable byproduct of the game. I always admired their ability to make so measured—and so cosmetic—a moral judgment. This was how those sensitive people justified condemning boxing while celebrating football, and, I suspect, how many of them managed to sleep at night after doing so.
The NFL is going to come down hard on the Saints, much harder than New Orleans ever hit Favre. The league has no other choice. The sport's core con is at stake. Supposedly, commissioner Roger Goodell is particularly livid because the Saints lied about their bounty program. They're not the only ones being dishonest.