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03-31-2012, 09:01 PM
On Bounties and the Integrity of Professional Sports
by RGM81 aka Richard McAdam

When it was revealed that the New Orleans Saints staff were running a “bounty program” that rewarded players for inflicting injuries on opposing players, shockwaves were sent throughout the sports world. People were, quite rightly, aghast at the idea of player bonuses for laying hits that resulted in other athletes being carted off the field or landing on the injured player list. The NFL conducted an investigation and came down incredibly harshly on the Saints, suspending coach Sean Payton for the entire 2012 season and banning defensive coordinator Gregg Williams from the NFL indefinitely. The revelation, and the resulting action by the League, demonstrates two things: many professional athletes do not respect one another, and we the fans expect to see a competitive spirit in sports that does not cross the line into unprofessional conduct.

The idea of a particular financial bonus for winning is not a unique concept in sports. One hears fairly regularly about a player on a team “putting money on the board” should his team defeat an opponent. This happens usually when it is a heated rivalry or the player left the opposing team under less-than-ideal circumstances. These side arrangements are generally considered to be innocuous enough – professional athletes are paid in the millions of dollars each year, so a dinner tab being picked up or a couple thousand dollars is not a major incentive to perform in any particular way. Indeed, as former New York Jets coach Herm Edwards famously stated, “You play to win the game!” A token gesture made by a teammate for the team doing what it is expected to do on a regular basis does not cut to the core of competitive sports. Wanting to defeat an opponent is not predicated on respect or disrespect; it is the basic foundation of professional sports. The money on the board is a bonus and it usually emanates from the individual level in the locker room, not from the team itself and there is generally no ill will directed towards the opposing team.

Intent to Injure - Cash Rewards for Big Hits was the foundation of the Saints' program under the tutelage of Gregg Williams

What makes the NFL’s Bountygate scandal separate and distinct from other locker room incentive programs is that it demonstrates an absolute disregard for the safety and well-being of an opposing team’s players. In giving players $1500 for “knockouts” and $1000 for “cart-offs” the Saints promoted their players going into games with an intent to injure. Look, we can all agree that professional contact sports are tough, hard, and bruising games. When you line up 22 men on opposing sides, there will be contact and much of it will hurt to a significant degree. There is an acceptable degree of violence in professional sports. A clean open-field hit or a hard sack on the quarterback are two events that will certainly draw the people out of their seats with thunderous applause. How often, though, do we immediately see the linebacker offer his hand to the downed QB to pull him back off the ground? It’s a gesture of respect and a reminder that pro sports are still about athletes and a positive competition. The Saints contravened this foundation of professionalism, and what’s more, they knew that’s exactly what they were doing with the program: "It was a terrible mistake, and we knew it was wrong while we were doing it."[1] (http://www.sportscardforum.com/#_ftn1) It is not an isolated thing within football; awareness of wrongdoing is something we are seeing increasingly in all sports.

Look at hockey, a game predicated on speed and skill but also one that is wrestling with what degree of violence is acceptable. Fighting in hockey has come under the microscope in recent years, as some in the media and some retired players debate the pros and cons of permitting bare-knuckled brawling on the ice. While you do see a “code” of ethics amongst NHL fighters, one area that is lacking in such respect is the rise in incredibly violent hits that target the head of opposing players. Players today are bigger, stronger, and faster than ever before, and they are aided and abetted by more advanced equipment and adjustments to the rules that make the game that much faster. If two 200+ pound men are skating towards one another at high speed, and one drives his elbow into the head of the other player, a concussion is the near-inevitable result. Hockey has always had very hard-hitting players. Larry Robinson was a monster on defence for the Montreal Canadiens in the 1970’s; standing at 6’4”, 225lbs., Robinson was an intimidating figure on the ice that could, and did, crush numerous opponents with thunderous body checks. Amazingly, Robinson never had more than 76 PIM in a single season (and that was in his 2nd year when he was still establishing his reputation), demonstrating that while he played hard, for the most part Robinson played within the rules of the game. The players of today seemingly do not intend to merely separate a player from the puck, but indeed to separate his head from his body. The list of players to miss playing time in recent years due to concussions inflicted by vile, dangerous, and illegal hits has been staggering. The game is still trying to think of how to combat this rise in violence causing injuries.

Since becoming NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell has gone to great lengths to improve player safety.

The NFL has been more pro-active than the NHL when it comes to dealing with illegal blows to the head. In 2010 the League announced that players who commit “flagrant violations” will “be subject to escalated levels of discipline including discipline without pay.”[2] (http://www.sportscardforum.com/#_ftn2) There were severe fines imposed on many players, and one of the most prominent players to be on the receiving end of a $75,000 fine was Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison. These are not insignificant punishments meant to deter “reckless and wild” hits that the NFL has deemed to be “inexcusable” given all we know today about the long-term ramifications of concussions and other head injuries. There has been no attempt to remove contact from the sport of football; rather, the NFL is mandating that its players demonstrate a level of respect for one another and attempt to make hard conduct without inflicting severe damage and ensuring that whatever injuries players sustain are significantly more limited.

When the NFL announced its new policy on hits to the head, it cited the word “respect” on numerous occasions. The bounty program in New Orleans is founded on total disrespect. It puts financial reward ahead of player safety and consideration for the well-being of your opponent. This is something more than just wanting to win and doing all you can to ensure victory over a rival. Having a policy of rewarding players that injure other players cheapens the competitive nature and casts doubt on the integrity of the game. We live in an era where many social and political institutions are held in very low regard, yet sport is something we still place on a pedestal and expect to see a relative degree of purity.

Competing to win the right way is at the core of all sports. We celebrate the glory and grandeur of sports at the Olympic Games. Athletes train themselves to be at their very peak so that they can battle to claim the honour of being the very best in the world. We also expect them to do it without the aid of performance-enhancing drugs, and when we find out that one member or team has cheated the system, they are stripped of their awards and often banned from future competitions. Those selfish actions to win at all costs tarnish the reputation of the sport. Baseball is finally breaking away from the steroid era that was dominated by hulked-up, juiced-up sluggers, and it has worked hard to ensure that the game remains as free as possible of PED’s. The sport has punished those who cheated by denying them entry into Cooperstown and it has excommunicated those who lied to a national—indeed, global—audience. The pure spirit of competition is one of the most compelling things about sport. Those of us who support our team want to believe that they are the best, and we want to see them compete against other teams that are fielding their very best rosters available. It is this desire to be held as the pinnacle of one’s sport that endless debates will rage about which championship team was truly the greatest of all time and would be able to beat out any other glorified dynasties.


One of the most prominent players in NFL history, Brett Favre, had his career affected by the Saints' bounty program

The two names that most regularly get discussed as the victims of the Saints’ bounty program are QB’s Brett Favre and Kurt Warner. While both players were past their primes at the time they were knocked out of football by injuries believed to be sustained against the Saints, these were two players that were absolutely central to the success or failure of their respective teams. In Warner’s case, he was injured in the NFC Divisional Playoffs against the Saints on a hit that many felt was dirty. He tried to play in the second half of the game, but it was Warner’s final game in the NFL. In knocking out Warner, the Saints forced the Cardinals to play their second-string QB Matt Leinart, and went on to a substantial victory en route to their Super Bowl win. For his part, Favre said of the game where the Saints targeted him:

In that game there were some plays that, I don't want to say were odd, but I'd throw the ball and whack, on every play. Hand it off, whack. Over and over. Some were so blatant. I hand the ball to Percy Harvin early and got drilled right in the chin. They flagged that one at least. I've always been friends with Darren Sharper, and he came in a couple times and popped me hard. I remember saying, 'What the hell you doing, Sharp?'[3] (http://www.sportscardforum.com/#_ftn3)

When even the other players can tell that something is awry with a game and the way it is being played, there is a problem. There is nothing that can be done at this point to bring back Favre and Warner, but hopefully the revelations will prevent further injuries to other star players.

The public response to the bounty scandal was welcome and reassuring, as it was a strong reminder to all professional sports entities that they are a public trust. While individual sports teams have their own private owners, truly they do belong to all of us. We expect them to behave in a professional and responsible manner that acknowledges that there is a hard-edged competition transpiring but still demonstrates respect and integrity. The New Orleans Saints deeply violated that public trust. They compromised the integrity of the sport. They deprived the fans of many teams the opportunity to see their team’s best players compete at the highest level in an effort to bring their club a championship. The punishment meted out to Sean Payton, Gregg Williams, and the entire Saints organization is thus fitting and appropriate. Sports is supposed to bring out the best in all of us; this ugly incident showed the very worst part of what happens when an organization loses its moral compass in the pursuit of winning at all costs.

[1] (http://www.sportscardforum.com/#_ftnref1) “Williams to meet with NFL security.” Sports Illustrated 4 March 2012. Accessed 28 March 2012. http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/football/nfl/03/04/gregg.williams.nfl.security.ap/index.html

[2] (http://www.sportscardforum.com/#_ftnref2) “NFL’s video message to players: ‘You are on notice’ about hits.” NFL. 21 Oct. 2010. Accessed 28 March 2012. http://www.nfl.com/news/story/09000d5d81b811df/article/nfls-video-message-to-players-you-are-on-notice-about-hits

[3] (http://www.sportscardforum.com/#_ftnref3) Peter King, “Roger Goodell will hit New Orleans Saints hard for bounty scandal.” Sports Illustrated. 5 March 2012. Accessed 28 March 2012. http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/writers/peter_king/03/05/offseason/index.html

04-15-2012, 02:52 PM
Nice piece Richard, published here: http://www.sportscardforum.com/articles/2012/04/on-bounties-and-the-integrity-of-professional-sports/

04-15-2012, 03:46 PM
Well-written article, even if I do disagree with most of it. Your articles are always well written and thought out.

04-16-2012, 08:33 PM
What do you disagree with Andrew? Put it in writing, would live to see a counter point of view article :)

04-16-2012, 08:43 PM
I'll see if I can get anything together. I've been super busy getting ready for a school trip to Utah in a week.