The team's players were rewarded for injuring their opponents. Is this kind of thing just part of the game?
Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), and Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic) talk about pro football's latest shakeup.
As George Thorogood would say: "And aWAYYY we go!"
It takes a big story to keep Peyton Manning, free agent, from dominating the news cycle. And news that the New Orleans Saints had a "bounty program" to hurt opposing players has certainly been that. An NFL investigation into the program found that under the watchful eye of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, Saints defenders would earn $1,000 from the slush fund if they hit a guy so hard he had to be carted off the field—if they knocked the opposing player out, the bounty rose to $1,500. For special occasions, the bounty rose, like when linebacker Jonathan Vilma offered $10,000 to anyone who knocked Brett Favre out of the game in the Saints' 2010 NFC Championship Game against the Vikings.
The moral outrage from the media has been swift and sanctimonious. ESPN's Gregg Easterbrook dubbed the bounty program SinnersGate (pretty lame, I know) and said it's a bigger scandal than SpyGate. Sports Illustrated's Joe Posnanski wrote: "This bounty-hunting business seems to me to be unethical and immoral on about a thousand different levels."
My response to the whole bounty program? Um, DUH.
It's inconceivable to be that anyone with even half a brain could watch football—on any level from high school to the pros—and not think that it's an inherently brutal sport that demands uncivilized levels of violence. If you're really outraged by this, don't watch football. If you're outraged because you believe it tarnishes the "integrity" of a game where the goal of each play is to bring a man to the ground in basically any way you can, then you're a hypocrite of the highest order.
For more, let's turn to angry Deadspin sports columnist and former high school football player Drew Magary:
I must again reiterate that football is an inherently violent and inhumane sport, and that anyone who watches it makes a pact with themselves that it's violent, but that's OK because it's grown men playing it and it's AWESOME to watch. It was never a beautiful sport. Ever. If you ever played football, you know that pain and suffering are inflicted on someone virtually every play.
I watch football with open eyes, understand that savagery and inhuman acts are as much a part of the game as touchdowns, and plan on keeping my children away from football as much as possible. But maybe I'm too sanguine about this. What say you, Hampton?
Jake, the day I start looking to Drew Magary as my moral compass, you can take me out back and shoot me.
Let me see if I'm getting this. You are saying that football is a violent game? Wow. Gee whiz. That is a stunning revelation. Next thing you'll be telling me that the sky is blue.
Yes, football is about violence. But it isn't only about violence. The goal of the game is not, in fact, "to bring a man to the ground" however you can. The goal, because apparently there's confusion here, is to score more points than the other team. Towards that end, teams employ various tactics and strategies. One tactic, the forward pass, is especially popular with fans. It's so popular that forward-passers, called "quarterbacks," are among the game's biggest stars. Brett Favre, for instance, during his playing career, generated millions of dollars for the NFL, its broadcast partners, and advertisers. Jonathan Vilma and Gregg Williams? Ummm... Not so much. Bet you last dollar, those boys are about to learn their place on the food chain.
But this isn't just about pampering quarterbacks. Keep in mind, we aren't talking about cash for big, clean plays. That would be fundamentally no different from college and high school programs handing out helmet stickers. The Saints wanted guys knocked off their field. That usually means a cheap shot or helmet-to-helmet hit, and the team was offering cash to offset the inevitable fines that would come.
That's not "just part of football," Jake, and it's more than just bad business, too. It's cheating. And it's an especially cruel, stupid kind; one that can not only change the outcome of games, but destroy a player's career in an instant.
Anyone, you or Drew, who is incapable of making a moral distinction between playing a violent game to win, and playing it to deliberately injure others isn't really in a position to be calling anyone a hypocrite.
Patrick, surely you're not going to defend the Saints. After all, I do look to you as my moral compass.
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.