“Professional football in America is a violent sport. The men who play it make it so.”
Can’t you hear the famous baritone of John Facenda reciting those lines, preceding an NFL Films segment on the game’s greatest hits?
And, to a certain extent, that’s fine. It’s football. Some violence is expected. It’s a collision sport. A physical game. Beat or be beaten.
But establishing a bounty system which offers financial rewards for knocking opponents out of games? Haven’t we moved beyond such Neanderthal thought?
The National Football League’s latest public relations nightmare erupted last Friday with revelations that the New Orleans Saints used a “bounty” system to help catapult them to their Super Bowl championship.
Players received bonuses for big plays and big hits, especially those that knocked opponents out of games.
Worst of all, the system was sanctioned by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Now, here’s a guy who’s so far out of line that he’s already admitted his guilt. And he hasn’t even been called on the commissioner’s carpet yet.
“We knew it was wrong while we were doing it,” Williams said in a prepared statement released Friday. Presumably written in crayon, it continued: “Instead of getting caught up in it, I should have stopped it. I take full responsibility for my role.”
As well he should. This sort of egregious behavior earned severe criticism as far back as the early ’70s, when Oakland Raiders George Atkinson and Jack Tatum had their own bounty system in place.
Of course, those were the Raiders of Al Davis, the Official Outlaws of the NFL. They were nothing if not notorious. Tatum even ended the career of Darryl Stingley with a vicious hit — and never apologized.
It’s amazing that this sort of mentality should surface now. The league is trying to adopt rules to protect the players while defending a lawsuit from former players over injuries sustained during their careers. The promulgation of a bounty system in this environment constitutes an act of sheer idiocy.
And yet, the issue doesn’t seem so cut and dried to those who play the game.
Those 2009 Saints knocked Kurt Warner out of his final NFL game during their playoff run. “There’s no place in the game for that,” Warner told USA Today.
A week later, a source told si.com, the Saints had a $10,000 reward for knocking Vikings quarterback Brett Favre out of the NFC Championship game. But Favre told si.com, “Its football. I don’t think anything less of those guys.”
At least one NFL player, Steelers safety Ryan Clark, had no concern over the bounty program, but was outraged that someone sang. “Whoever is snitching on the Saints D should be ashamed of themselves,” he Tweeted. “No one was talking about the bounty when they got paid.” Now, there’s some enlightened thought.
Reports also surfaced that Williams conducted a similar system while the Redskins assistant head coach, defense, from 2004 to 2007. “When you lined up against us, you knew we were coming after you,” Matt Bowen told the Chicago Tribune. Bowen played for Williams in Washington. “It was our gig, our plan, our way to motivate, to extra motivate.”
Phillip Daniels also played for Williams on the Redskins after starring at Georgia. “I think it’s wrong the way they’re trying to paint [Williams]. He never told us to go out there and break a guy’s neck or break a guy’s leg. It was all in the context of good, hard football.”
Surely a line exists between playing hard and criminal mayhem?
Maybe Kris Jenkins can help. He played 10 seasons at defensive tackle for the Panthers and Jets. “I’m all about inflicting pain to the point of submission,” he told the New York Times. “But I’m not going out there to hurt people. Players have wives. They have families.
“That’s a tremendous leap, between giving money to a guy for making a play, and getting someone hurt. Trying to take a guy’s career from him, that’s not football. That’s something else. That’s criminal.”
Bart Scott spent 10 seasons playing linebacker with the Ravens and Jets. He thinks the league overreacted to the word “bounty.” He told the Times, “Knocking someone out doesn’t mean you’re doing something dirty. You have to know the intent.
“It’s still football. If you hit someone legally, and they can’t play as well, or play at all, that’s what you want. That’s what being physical is all about.”
OK, but when you’re paying for big hits, can’t intent be inferred?
Dick Butkus appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s 1970 pro football preview issue beside the caption “The Most Feared Man In The Game.” In his most famous quote, Butkus proclaimed, “I wouldn’t ever set out to hurt anyone deliberately, unless it was, you know, important. Like a league game or something.”
Yes, the league sure has come a long way.