"Organized Savagery" in the NFL

New Orleans Saints coach Payton with quarterback Drew Brees; REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

About 18 months ago, we wrote with great excitement about the National Football League (NFL) and the new attention they were bringing to the crisis of concussion. The 2010 football season began with new concussion awareness posters in the locker rooms. As quoted in The New York Times, the Baltimore Ravens’ center, Matt Birk, said:

“To put it out there in writing in locker rooms, at least it’s publicly acknowledging that, ‘Hey, this is real.’ There’s risks in everything you do, and this one is real. You can’t sweep it under the rug anymore.

Unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be much change in the culture of the sport: Players were not removed from play after either giving or receiving hard head hits—the kind that are likely to cause concussion. The concussion prevention program was little more than words on a page, talk with no back-up action.

Now, a new scandal has rocked the NFL, and this one is difficult to understand, under any circumstance.

An investigation has revealed a “Pay for Pain” bounty program in the New Orleans Saints. Head coach Sean Payton and general manager Micky Loomis have taken full responsibility. According to a Reuters news article, under the bounty program, players were reported with payments of thousands of dollars for hard hits that knocked opponents out of games. Supposedly, players were paid $1,000 for a “knockout hit” and another $1,000 if a player were to be carried off the field.

The program was administered by former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who issued a statement acknowledging his involvement:

“It was a terrible mistake, and we knew it was wrong while we were doing it. Instead of getting caught up in it, I should have stopped it,” said Williams. “I take full responsibility for my role. I am truly sorry. I have learned a hard lesson and I guarantee that I will never participate in or allow this kind of activity to happen again.”

This seems like quite a cold-blooded apology for such a heinous and injurious program. Oops, sorry, won’t do it again. Perhaps he and everyone else who actively or passively condoned this program shouldn’t be allowed a chance to do it again…perhaps they should lose their jobs…perhaps they should pay restitution of some sort to the players who were seriously injured by this program.

As Charles P. Pierce wrote on the website Grantland.com:

“What we shave here now is the face of organized savagery, plain and simple…. These events were not incidental to the playing of the game. They were an essential part of it. The players who participated in the program did not do so accidentally. The coaches who designed the program did not do it without knowing full well what it entailed, including the possibility of retaliation if the story ever got out, and a subsequent football arms race that would end up with someone dead on the field.

How much violence and physical damage is too much before we start to realize that our national pastime needs to change the unwritten rules of the game? We have a crisis of concussion… players dying young due to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and dementia… players committing suicide as they experience catastrophic declines in their physical and mental health… and now aggression bounties. As Mr. Pierce wrote:

Gradually, football has seen its appeal slip at the most basic levels. Pediatricians are advising parents not to let young children play organized football too early in life. Local high schools are looking at skyrocketing insurance rates and wondering, in a time when school budgets are being squeezed to a pulp all over the country, whether this particular game is worth the candle. Major college programs have all the economic problems present in the high schools combined with all the workplace-safety issues with which the NFL is grappling. Football may be losing some of what once appeared to be its unbreakable purchase on the country’s soul.

I’ve always been one of those people who cringe and look away when aggressive football hits are replayed in slow motion, so maybe I’m out of touch with what football fans are willing to bear. But I’ll never again be able to enjoy the pure sport of football without wondering exactly what nefarious plays are being planned in the huddle or the locker room. And I’ll never be able to assume that any on-the-field injury was due to an accident, rather than a calculated hit.

And maybe it’s time for the New Orleans team to change its name. “The Saints” just doesn’t seem to fit anymore.


To read the full Reuters article, click here:  Saints coach and GM take blame for bounties

To read the full article on Grantland.com, click here: The Saints, Head-hunting, and (Another) Disaster for the NFL

To read more about the scandal on ESPN, click here:  Saints coach, GM sorry for bounties

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