Message Is Clear: Zero Tolerance for 'Bounty Hits'
The National Football League’s commissioner, Roger Goodell, came down on the New Orleans Saints as if he was swinging Mjolnir, the mighty Hammer of Thor. And rightfully so.
It is about time the leader of one of the four major professional sports leagues in North America lands hard on those who brazenly violate league rules, cheat, lie about it and, in the process, intentionally inflict serious bodily injury upon select opponents. But Goodell has not shied away from punishing those in the NFL whom he feels commit serious transgressions.
This time, however, the commissioner really handed out quite harsh and attention-grabbing penalties, including the first season-long suspension of a team’s head coach in NFL history.
The crime in question was the New Orleans Saints’ three-year-long practice (2009-2011) of targeting select opponents such as quarterbacks who were to be injured by Saints defensive players seriously enough to put them out of a game. If successful, the defensive players were paid bounty bonuses for following through on those crippling hits.
To top it off, the Saints denied they did such things. This only added to their penalties as Goodell emphasized the seriousness of their deceptions.
In the biggest surprise among the penalties handed out, Goodell ordered a one-year suspension without pay for the Saints’ head coach, Sean Payton, effective April 1. Never before has an NFL head coach been so harshly penalized.
The former Saints defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, who now holds that position with the St. Louis Rams, was suspended without pay indefinitely, effective last Wednesday. This could mean much more than one year and possibly end his NFL career. Williams was considered the real instigator behind the bounty program, a method he is suspected of employing while he was defensive coordinator for the Washington Redskins.
A Version of ‘Hit Men’
The New Orleans Saints were fined $500,000, a mere pittance. But the Saints’ general manager, Mickey Loomis, was suspended without pay for the first eight games (half a regular season) of 2012. Joe Vitt, the team’s assistant head coach, was suspended without pay for the first six games of the 2012 season. The whole mess sounds almost like a chapter out of the classic 1951 book, “Murder Inc.,” about New York City mob killers or “hit men,” written by Burton B. Turkus and Sid Feder.
This NFL version, however, is about hit men who are huge young athletes already being paid a salary in the millions of dollars per year. They were given a “mere” few thousand dollars per hit if they injured an opposing targeted player badly enough to force him out of action. It was called a “cartoff,” a reference to when a football player is injured so badly that he has to be placed on a small electric cart or in an ambulance to be taken from the field to a hospital.
There was a $10,000 bounty for any of the Saints’ defensive players who seriously crippled Brett Favre, the Minnesota Vikings quarterback, in the 2010 National Football Conference playoff game. Other quarterbacks targeted by the Saints in recent years, according to the NFL investigators, included the Carolina Panthers’ Cam Newton; Aaron Rodgers, who succeeded Favre as the Green Bay Packers quarterback; and Kurt Warner when he played for the Arizona Cardinals.
It was coach Sean Payton who turned the tide for the Saints at the outset of the second half of Super Bowl XLIV in February 2010 when he directed his team to execute a short kickoff. The Saints recovered the ball to start a touchdown drive for the lead on their way to victory over the Indianapolis Colts.
That is where the commissioner came down in a most telling manner on the Saints because Payton, who will lose his salary of $7.5 million this year, has been the classic team leader, offensive play caller and daring risk taker with imaginative, trick plays throughout his Saints career that began in 2006. Without him, the Saints will undoubtedly look to Drew Brees, the team’s outstanding quarterback, for their source of inspirational and tactical leadership.
Lying to Cover Up
The Saints, like so many ill-advised folks such as President Nixon, his Watergate mob and Martha Stewart, made the serious mistake of trying to cover up their wrongdoing by lying about it to NFL investigators. This did not sit at all well with Goodell, who said, “Clearly, we were lied to. We investigated this back in 2010 (before the season). We were told it was not happening, and it continued for another two years.”
In view of the fact that the NFL has been attempting to cut down and even prevent concussions, and the fact that a number of former NFL players are suing the league claiming it knew years ago about the long-term damage to a man’s brain from repeated hits, Goodell has taken these strong measures to prevent intentional damage to football players.
“There will be no more non-contract bonus payments in the NFL,” Goodell said.
Football is a rough and tumble game that is dangerous even when played according to the rules. As each generation yields bigger and bigger players, the kinetic energy produced by fast, huge linemen and defensive backs can create a greater and greater force slamming into a ball carrier or quarterback. When aimed with intent to injure, the result can be devastating and even life-threatening.
The NFL games may have become the national pastime, replacing baseball in recent years. But no national pastime has room for thuggish behavior or near criminal activity. This bounty hitting amounts to aggravated assault.
The National Hockey League has serious problems with excessive physical contact. The NHL is the worst in this regard, considering fights have been breaking out in games even as the game-opening drop of the puck takes place. The hired hit men in the NHL have injured opponents badly and suffer life-threatening head trauma themselves while carrying out their damaging orders.
Yet the NHL commissioner does not take any actions such as Goodell took in this bounty case. Goodell is to be commended for at least attempting to establish integrity to his league and game.
And he is not anywhere near finished handing out bounty-case penalties. There may be two dozen or more players penalized within a few days or weeks. The NFL said that Goodell is working with the NFL Players Association to come up with a mutually acceptable penalty for each of those players involved.
John Madden, the former Oakland Raiders head coach and longtime NFL game television commentator, has claimed that NFL quarterbacks should be protected in the same manner that the rules protect punters and place kickers. Madden says that once the ball is out of his hands, a quarterback should not be touched, just as a kicker cannot be touched after he has kicked the ball.
Some defensive players say, “We would be putting a skirt on the quarterbacks.”
NFL quarterbacks are the most prized athletes in professional sports. A team without a good one is no team at all. If it is worth $10,000 or more for a quarterback to be crippled, possibly for life, then something is very wrong in the NFL. That is why Goodell was correct to send a message that from now on there is an absolute zero tolerance for such shenanigans.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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