If you don't care about the Saints bounty hunting story -- barely even see it as as story -- you might as well stop reading now. I know that includes a lot of people. I know there is a strong belief that just about every team in the NFL does this sort of thing, and I suspect that's true (already there is talk of investigating other teams). I know that to be appalled by the Saints story is to be absurdly naive. I know that pro football is a rough and vicious game, that hurting other players is both a natural repercussion of the game's violence and a viable part of the game's strategy. The quarterback must go down, Al Davis said, and he must go down hard.
So all that's said.
A few years ago, basketball coach Kelvin Sampson got in a some serious trouble for recruiting violations at Oklahoma. You might remember that, even if you don't remember the details. Sampson and his staff were investigated for three years and eventually the program was put on probation -- severe recruiting were restrictions placed on them. There were quite a few columns and stories written about Sampson's unethical behavior -- he was knowingly cheating -- and there was a stink attached to Sampson's reputation. Even now, when you bring up Sampson's name, people tend to remember that he got in trouble and was one of those dirty coaches.
What did Kelvin Sampson actually do? He and his staff called potential recruits way too many times -- more than 500 more calls than were allowed by NCAA rules. I'm not downplaying this: The NCAA has rules in place to prevent talented high school players from being bombarded by coaches trying to get them to play for their college. I'm all for those rules and all for punishing the people who break them. Still, in the grand scheme of right and wrong, moral and immoral … the guy made too many phone calls. He will probably never live it down.
In the late 1980s, Pete Rose got banned from baseball. Everyone knows why: He bet on baseball. Everyone also knows this is one of baseball's deadly sins and has been ever since some White Sox threw the 1919 World Series. There are many scenarios you can come up with -- many of them pretty unrealistic and imaginary, yes, but still they are there -- where the game's integrity can be called into question when someone gambles on the games. What if he throws a few bucks at a player to take a dive? What if he, as manager, uses his pitchers in an unhealthy order to win one game? And so on. Betting on baseball -- as people will tell you again and again -- strikes at the game's integrity.
Pete Rose had a sickness, a gambling sickness, he was addicted to gambling and so bet on baseball too. He says he never bet on his team to lose, but he has said a lot of things. He was banned from the game, he will never be allowed back in, he will probably never be inducted into Baseball's Hall of Fame, he has found himself in a strange half-life, signing autographs in Las Vegas and reminding anyone who will listen that he's the hit king.
On Friday, the NFL announced that the New Orleans Saints -- under the watchful eye of former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams -- had an all-encompassing bounty system in place from 2009 to 2011. Basically the players would pool together money, with Williams throwing in some of his own, and pay players to seriously injured opponents (if they could). The going rate in New Orleans seemed to be a grand for having a player carted off, $1,500 if a player was knocked out of the game. As far as we know, there was no higher price for paralyzing a player permanently or, with a really clean hit, killing him. But one player, Jonathan Vilma, reportedly did bid $10,000 to take out Brett Favre in a playoff game.
Funny thing: Every year, we will have thousands of outraged columns and radio/TV rants and blog posts about one team running up the score an another. Every year, we will have thousands of outraged columns and radio/TV rants and blog posts about how players dance too forcefully in the end zone after scoring a touchdown or sacking a quarterback. Every years will have thousand of outraged columns and radio/TV rants and blog posts about steroid use and recruiting violations and the violence intrinsic in video games and ultimate fighting and hockey and boxing and, yes, football too …
… does any of that match up with offering players extra money to seriously injure other players?
A brilliant reader suggested to me that what Rose did is worse than what Williams and company did because betting on baseball calls into question the legitimacy of the game while the bounty does not. I don't want to downplay this opinion because many other people (most people?) agree with it. The thinking seems to be that betting on baseball can, at its worst, lead a person to purposely LOSE a game, which calls into question legitimacy, while paying players extra for successfully hurting opponents is just an extreme version of trying to WIN a game.
But I also don't think that's right. Let's say a player took a payment from GAMBLERS to do whatever was necessary to hurt Tom Brady, I don't think anyone would question the moral ramifications or that it was a strike against the legitimacy of the game.
And yet, what's the difference if you take the money from gamblers or from teammates and coaches?
This bounty hunting business seems to me to be unethical and immoral on about a thousand different levels.
For one thing, it's gambling, plain and simple. If someone says: "I bet you a thousand dollars you can't cause an injury so severe that the guy gets carted off," that's gambling.
For another, it's game-altering. If pitchers were offered bounties to throw at Albert Pujols' head and knock him out for a series, that would be a scandal beyond anything in memory. If we found out that Dwyane Wade was actually offered extra money to hurt Kobe Bryant in the NBA All-Star Game, he and the people offering the bounty might be suspended for life. Hockey is a violent sport, but if a team of players and coached really had pooled together money to pay anyone who could get Sidney Crosby taken off on a stretcher, wouldn't that be one of the great disgraces in the sport's history?
So what does it say about the NFL -- and what does it say about us as football fans -- that this would happen in pro football and there would be a vague, "Eh, everybody does it, everybody's trying to hurt everybody in football anyway" reaction from so many?
Also, it's on the verge of being criminal -- if you got a pool going in your office to purposely injure a competitor so you could win an account, yeah, you would go to jail.
Finally, on the tiniest level -- but a level we seem so interested in as fans -- it affects the legitimacy of the game. If we can spend hours and hours coming up with scenarios where Pete Rose's betting on his team to win would call into question the game's authenticity, how can you not see that a player being paid extra to hurt other players might commit team-killing penalties, might go for the player instead of the ball, might drift away from assignments to hurt someone, might not care about winning or losing as much as hurting the other guy.
I tend to think that we have automatic reactions to things in sports, and often those reactions don't match up all that well with our larger feelings about things. We have come to think of a big league player betting on baseball, just as a for instance, as a cardinal sin, the worst thing imaginable, worthy of a lifetime ban. And yet, millions and millions of people across America bet on baseball in some form or another -- fantasy baseball, little wagers in the office, visits to Vegas and so on. Millions and millions of people also bet on stuff in their own work -- bet you I get that account, bet you I finish my project before you do, bet you he gets that promotion and so on. I'm not saying it's the same: It isn't. Betting on baseball for a big league player IS a terrible offense within the game, and I think it should be punished severely. But in the larger picture, let's be honest, it isn't exactly assault and battery.
A bounty to get players carted off the field … yeah, that actually IS assault and battery.*
*Another brilliant reader questioned the accuracy of saying that the Saints were paying for "serious injury." His contention is that they were not trying to "seriously" injury anyone, they were only payingto take a player out of the game. "It is tackle football," the reader said. This is the kind of parsing I'm talking about -- do we really believe these guys have the ability to get a player carted off or knocked out but NOT seriously injury them? If so, they truly are geniuses of violence.
Pro football, behind the glitz and glamour and dramatic music, is dark and violent and brutal. We all understand this, even if we don't like to think too much about it. As mentioned above, when the Saints story broke, the NFL players' reaction as a whole seemed to be, "eh, part of the game." A lot of fans seemed to respond the same way. Heck Favre himself shrugged off the oversized bounty on his health as unsurprising and uninteresting.
And it makes me wonder if the overpowering popularity of pro football has simply made us numb. You know, over the last few years we have seen the past heroes of pro football suffer in agony at the end of their lives. We have watched spectacular athletes deteriorate and be discarded by the sport again and again. We have only begun to learn about how head injuries destroy people.
And now, we have the New Orleans Saints -- perhaps not alone, but the ones dumb enough to get caught -- paying each other extra money to hit opponents so hard, so viciously, so recklessly, that they would be carried off on stretchers. We have a coach, Gregg Williams, who not only oversaw this but put his own money into the pot. We have come to see that other coaches and players were well aware of all this. I fully understand that many people don't care; they are outraged that anyone would care. Which leads me to this question.
Is our love of pro football -- the spectacle, the violence, the thrills and sheer ferocity of it all -- so insatiable that nothing will ever shock or disgust us again?