The NFL's Punishment of the Saints Is Harsh, Nonsensical, and Hypocritical

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The league is maintaining the pretense that one player taking another player out of a game isn't what defensive football is about.

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An English friend of mine once defined for me the difference between rugby and American football: "Rugby is a game for savages played by gentlemen; football is a game for gentlemen played by savages." This is especially true of the professional game: Gentlemen don't make it to that level.

New Orleans head football coach Sean Payton, former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, Saints general manager Mickey Loomis, and assistant coach Joe Vitt—who are all now under various suspensions from the National Football League for their involvement in a bounty scandal—are not gentlemen. They are being punished for either paying their players to deliberately injure opposing players—or for knowing about such payments.

The charge is nonsense. All these men were doing is what they were paid to do and encouraging their players to do what they were supposed to do.

Pro football has always been dangerous. There were so many deaths from old-fashioned "pig pile" football in the early 1900s that Teddy Roosevelt very nearly banned it from college campuses. More than a century later, the modern game is fast becoming almost as deadly, though the danger is harder to identify because some injuries don't hurt you right away, they just shorten your life.

Advanced padding and helmet design haven't helped; in fact, they may be contributing to the problem. A rugby player knows exactly how hard to hit because his relatively unprotected body tells him when enough is enough. An American football player, though, doesn't know his limits until he's exceeded them.

Boxing provides an analogy. "They didn't start using boxing gloves because it made fighting more humane," says sports historian Bert Sugar. "They did it to make fights more exciting. The glove didn't provide protection for the body it hit, it provided protection for puncher's hand, allowing him to hit harder and turn his hand into a far more lethal weapon."

The same can be said for football, where state-of-the-art protective equipment has turned the body into a dangerous projectile. "The field stays the same size," the late San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh once told me, "but the players get bigger, stronger and faster. The extra protection allows them to play with more abandon, and that means increasingly harder hits."

Walsh's hardest hitter on those San Francisco championship teams was his All-Pro free safety, Ronnie Lott, generally regarded as the hardest pound-for-pound hitter in the game. "If they took away half my padding," he told me in an interview years ago, "they'd take away half my power."

No one wants to take anything away from the Ronnie Lotts of football—their savagery is the dirty secret of why we watch the game. The National Football League likes to pretend otherwise, that the reason for the increasing number of concussions and serious injuries has to do with cheap shots. They don't. They have to do with the nature of the game.

Cheap shots and deliberate fouls are not the issue. If a player attempts a foul, he should be heavily fined. If he injures another player with a foul, he deserves to not only be fined but to be suspended for the same time the injured player is out of the lineup.

But that's not what we're talking about here. Notice that you have heard almost nothing about illegal hits during the "bounty" controversy. That's because illegal hits are not what this is about. After years of denying that concussions were as prevalent and serious as they have proven to be—a study made 12 years ago indicated that at least 60 percent of NFL players suffered a concussion during their career and 26 percent suffered three or more—the NFL is now making a show of cleaning up the game.

The league is maintaining the pretense that one player taking another player out of a game—especially a key player like the quarterback—isn't what defensive football is about.

So Gregg Williams added the incentive of a "bounty"? How exactly did this change the equation? Are we supposed to believe that, say, a free safety who's earning maybe $4 million a season will refrain from hitting a receiver across the middle as hard as he can—as hard as Ronnie Lott or former Oakland Raiders safety Jack Tatum did—because no one is slipping him an envelope with $5,000 cash?

If anything, Sean Payton should have told his coaches and players, "Look, we're not going to pay you any more to take guys on the other team out because that's what we're already paying you your salary for."

Are we supposed to believe that the Saints linebackers hit—what, maybe 10 percent harder?—because they were offered a bounty? If that's what an NFL player needs to make him hit as hard as he can, then why was he in the lineup in the first place?

Jack "They Call Me Assassin" Tatum paralyzed New England Patriots receiver Darryl Stingley back in 1978 with a perfectly legal hit in a preseason game. No one needed to slip Tatum a bounty because he was doing his job—with unbridled relish.

A great many moralizers in the press have jumped this issue, moving quickly to what they believe is the high ground, in the process denying the nature of football. About two or three times a game a referee throws a flag for what he deems "unnecessary roughness." This tells us all anyone needs to know about football: It is a game of necessary roughness, on each and every play. And if the hit is clean, it is utter hypocrisy to pretend that it makes a difference how much a player was paid for making it.

In investigating bounties, NFL Commissioner Roger Gooddell and his staff should be concerned with only one thing: Was the hit clean or dirty?

Everything else is just football.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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