The punishment doled out by the NFL in the wake of the Saints bounty scandal has the sports world up in arms again. Fans, observers, and so-called analysts have quickly separated into two opposing factions: those who believe the punishments were too harsh, and those who feel they were far too lenient. However, in the midst of this heated argument, as players and coaches are vilified and defended, people are focusing on a single wrinkle in one big, crumpled up picture.
Don’t get me wrong: people have more than a right to be angry here. Something is always wrong when acts of harmful violence are encouraged and rewarded. However, we just ought to watch and make sure we’re directing that anger in the right direction.
I want to take a second to look at the two biggest examples used by those who believe the punishments given to the Saints were too lenient. These, of course, are the infamous postseason hits on Brett Favre and Kurt Warner, the latter causing an injury that is often seen as not only game-changing but also career-ending. Surely, these hits were excessive and perhaps unethical, but where was the NFL when they happened? No fines or suspensions were handed out at the time, which would have been in accordance with the NFL’s recent response to other big hits. However, the exposing of the bounty system changed everything.
In its actions, the NFL appears to be stating that otherwise legal hits are made illegal if a monetary incentive comes along with them. Something there just doesn’t add up. If the tackles that were made under the bounty system were legal, and sanctioned by the league through its inaction, why shouldn’t the Saints pay their players for them? After all, the injuries the Saints were causing gave them an advantage that, until the discovery of the bounty system, was legal as far as the NFL was concerned.
I think Kurt Warner himself summed up the problem in his comments on the scandal. After asserting his belief that the hits he sustained in that game against the Saints were clean and legal, and that the injury he sustained was not what ended his career, he proceeded to state: “To think that guys didn’t think, ‘Hey, we’d love to knock Kurt out or we’d love to knock Brett Favre out, or Drew Brees—or whoever it might be,’ I think that’s part of the game and I think that’s part of the mindset.” Warner is onto something here. There’s a system around aside from the Saints’ bounty system that rewards men for violent, potentially harmful behavior on the playing field—it’s called football. And as the world’s premier authority on football, the NFL has no right to suspend anyone involved in the Saints’ bounty program without taking a hard look at itself first.
Perhaps those who call for harsher and more widespread punishment of the New Orleans Saints are right in believing that stricter consequences would have ensured that bounty programs would cease to exist. But the bounty program is merely a manifestation of a culture of violence that has dominated the NFL for decades, a culture that the NFL itself has allowed to thrive. And even the suspension of the entire Saints roster couldn’t change that.
Rather, the NFL needs to do something more fundamental. Roger Goodell and his cronies need to call together their owners, coaches, and players and make a clear statement: they will no longer tolerate unnecessary violence on or off the field, and anyone who doesn’t like it can leave. In this way, they need to reset and enforce a new mentality, where injury is not a core part of strategy. And they need to do it fast, before the next spate of serious injuries rolls around.