By Bob Gaydos
So, I’m sitting around waiting for Peyton Manning to pick a new football team and hoping it’s anywhere but in the same division as his baby brother (who has delivered two Super Bowl championships to us Giants fans), and I can’t help but wonder why so many of those supposed sports “experts” -- from local newspaper columnists to national newspaper columnists, radio talk show hosts, TV talking heads and call-in fans -- don’t seem to grasp the significance of the other big story in football today. That would be the New Orleans Saints front office and coaching staff putting out hits on the best players on opposing teams.
To read or hear much of the commentary since the story broke, a non-fan might be led to wonder why some people -- NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for one -- were making such a big deal over it. Isn’t football a violent sport by definition? Don’t players sign up to play knowing this? Haven’t professionals always prided themselves on hitting hard and making quarterbacks or running backs or receivers a little gun shy? Hasn’t it always been an unspoken code that if you know a player on the other team is injured, you try to aggravate that injury? Isn’t putting a bounty on knocking an opponent out of the game pretty much more of the same?
Yes, yes, yes, yes … and no.
The whole point of the Saints’ bounty system (and they have admitted to it) was to pay their defensive players a bonus ($1,000 or more) if they knocked the star player on the other team out of the game. Wheeled off on a cart, preferably. About 20 players reportedly participated for a pool of money that reached $50,000. This is a league of supposedly college-educated (or at least college-attended) athletes who have a union to supposedly protect their health and well-being, both physical and financial. Their financial well-being depends on two things: 1. the continued success of the National Football League as a whole; 2. their ability to continue playing football without injury.
Until recently, when former players started suing the league for serious physical ailments (many concussion-related) long after they stopped playing, the NFL has not paid much attention to the physical well-being of its players. Hard-hitting produced big TV ratings. The NFL is worth billions today and many players have made millions because of the success of the league as a whole.
But think about it. What happens if Peyton Manning -- four-time league MVP and widely regarded as one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history and playing for the first time after four surgeries to repair nerves in his neck -- takes the field as quarterback for, say, the Miami Dolphins (sorry, Jets fans) and the defensive coach of their opponent has offered a $5,000 bonus to the guy who knocks Manning out of the game. Maybe another grand if he can’t walk off. For starters, that should be conspiracy to commit a crime and the crime itself, battery.
What if a coach playing against Peyton’s brother’s team has a bounty on Eli -- the comeback kid and double Super Bowl MVP? Or maybe on his favorite receivers, Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks? And hey, what about that kid from Stanford the Colts plan to sign to replace Peyton at quarterback -- Andrew Luck. How about two grand to welcome him to the NFL and maybe land on the injured cannot play list. Go down the list of stars in the league. Who would not be a target of a bounty? The Saints admitted targeting Brett Favre (future Hall of Famer) and Kurt Warner (potential Hall of Famer).
The macho pro football players who say this is no big deal are either defensive players, who have no fear of anyone targeting them, offensive players who are not game-changing stars and, thus, also not targets, or too dumb to realize that any business -- and pro football is very big business -- that knowingly allows its employees to seek to do harm to its most valuable assets and be rewarded by their teams for it, is on the road to self-destruction. What is a league without its stars?
This is, of course, to say nothing of the moral and ethical arguments that so many players, fans and commentators seem to think shouldn’t matter to the NFL. Is any behavior in the name of competitive edge to be considered acceptable? Would bounties be accepted in other businesses? Would it be OK, for example, for a copy editor from the New York Post, thinking about a bounty offered by his sports editor, to casually wander into the offices of the New York Daily News and slam a stapler down hard on Mike Lupica’s hands, making it impossible for the award-winning columnist to write?
Well, some might say, Lupica didn’t sign up to be physically attacked for his opinions, just verbally abused. But don’t ask me to believe any NFL star is OK knowing he’s playing a game in which some of his fellow union members are trying to intentionally injure him, and maybe affect his future earnings and physical health. (By the way, of the players who commented on the bounty, Eli Manning was sensible enough to say it had no place in professional football.)
As for the nonsense, that the defensive players aren’t trying to do permanent harm to opponents, it is naïve and delusional to think that any player spurred on by the thought of getting an illegal bonus for knocking, say, Tom Brady out of a game can somehow gauge his hit to be just enough to do less than permanent damage. Look at how many concussions were reported this year since the league got serious about penalizing unnecessarily rough hits or hits on defenseless players.
Whatever many players and fans think, the NFL cannot allow this kind of “incentive” to continue. It is a road to retribution and ruin. Goodell, who is looking to carve a legacy as the commissioner who created an entertaining, highly competitive and profitable enterprise must deliver major penalties to put an end to this practice now. The Saints defensive coach who instituted the bounties should be banned from the NFL for life. The head coach, who knew about it, should be suspended for half the season. The general manager, who also knew about it, should be find $1 million and be fired by the team owner. The player (Jonathan Vilma) who offered his own bounty of $10,000 to anyone who knocked Favre out of a playoff game, should be suspended for six games and fined $250,000.
If Goodell comes down hard on the Saints, others will not follow their lead and the NFL will continue to prosper as an entertaining, competitive league that offers exciting athleticism and controlled mayhem every week. If he goes soft, some star player is inevitably going to be seriously injured by a nobody trying to make a name for himself and grab a couple of grand under the table. That’s mayhem dangerously out-of-control.