There are a lot of things I love about the game of football: the fandom, the passion, the drama, the competition, the emotion. But mostly, I love the knock-down, drag-out physical intensity of the sport. Because without that, the rest of it could not exist.
I’m the kind of girl who is happiest snowboarding in a blizzard or curled up on her couch with a book, so it’s not always easy for people to understand what it is I love about a game so many view as violent. And I’ll be honest: while I love a perfectly executed pass, a solid run up the middle, or a successful onside kick, it is the hard hits, run-stopping blocks, and crunching tackles that I love most. Yes, my heart starts pounding when the offense takes control of the game, puts points on the board, and runs down the clock, but at heart, I’m a defense kind of girl. A touchdown is exciting, sure. But a quarterback sack? That, my friends, is nothing but pure satisfaction.
If you’re a football fan, you get it, but for those of you who may not be, I guess it’s best explained as taking down the person who’s leading the fight against you. Showing him who’s boss. Reminding him that you’re there…and you’re not going anywhere. That you’re in this fight until the end. That you’re never going to give up.
I love hard hits so much that I’ll even go so far as to admit that I don’t get as much satisfaction from a sack where the quarterback goes to the ground softly. I want him to go down hard. I want him to think about that sack every time he takes a snap for the rest of the game. I want him to know that he’s not safe. I want him to be scared. I want him to second-guess his decisions. I want him to remember: My defense? They’re coming to get him.
But as much as I love the big hits, I don’t root for injuries even though it’s hard not to at times. You know an opponent is coming into a game with a weakness: a bad ankle, a broken hand, a sore shoulder and you think: well, if we can just knock him out of the game that sure would make things easier for us. But no matter what, that’s never the right approach. I watch Steve Young get violently sacked in 1999 and there was nothing more horrific than watching my quarterback lie limp and lifeless on the field. It was his eighth (recorded) concussion. He never played football again.
Football is a dangerous and violent sport, yes, but no one ever wants to see a player taken out of the game for good.
Or so I thought…
Last Friday, the NFL announced that an investigation by its security department discovered that the New Orleans Saints ran a “bounty” program during the 2009-2011 seasons, financially rewarding players who inflicted injuries or knocked opponents out of the game. I know the Saints are revered by many, but anyone who’s a NFL fan knows there’s more to their story than a post Hurricane Katrina-Super Bowl win and record-breaking quarterback. They’re notoriously impudent and brazen, blowing off media sessions, showing up late, unnecessarily running up scores, and acting with a general disdain for the rules of the NFL.
But even knowing about this about them, I was still mortified to learn that the Saints paid $1,000 for “cart-offs” and $1,500 for “knockouts” (with payments doubled or tripled for the playoffs). In case that’s not clear, that means that defensive players were being provided with a financial incentive to hurt an opponent so badly that he was either carried off of the field or unable to return. Brett Favre and Kurt Warner were amongst those specifically targeted.
I understand that one of the biggest aspects of the game is hard hits. As I said, it’s one of my favorite parts of the game. I also understand that players go into this game knowing that they might get hurt.
But while these players go into a game assuming they might get injured, they don’t go into the game assuming someone is TRYING to injure them. That to me is the key difference. The former is part of the game; the latter sounds a lot like assault.
As of Sunday night, it was being reported that the “NFL is considering severe, sweeping disciplinary measures […] that could include lengthy suspensions of Coach Sean Payton, General Manager Mickey Loomis, former Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams” as well as players involved in the scheme. It is almost certain that hefty fines will be imposed and draft picks will be forfeited.
Certainly, the New Orleans Saints and the St. Louis Rams (where the person responsible for the scheme, Gregg Williams, is now the Defensive Coordinator) will face serious penalties, as they should. Regardless of whether or not you find the Bounty Program surprising or agree as most people do that it’s been around for years, the fact of the matter is: It’s against the rules. And now the NFL has proof. And during a time when the NFL is being sued by former players who allege it ignored warnings that multiple concussions were causing long-term brain damage and depression, you can bet that Commissioner Roger Goodell is going to come down hard on anyone involved.
Here’s the thing though: while the concept of the Bounty Program isn’t, unfortunately, all that shocking, what does, sadly, surprise me is that it even needs to exists. Is $1,000 really going to incent a player who makes hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars to try to take a guy out of the game? I find it hard to believe that guys who are willing to pay a $20,000 fine for wearing non-uniform cleats on game day are going to get motivated by a measly $1,500. Yes, the Bounty Program is awful, but I don't think guys are going after opponents and trying to knock them out of the game because of a $1,000 incentive. They're doing this because, for whatever reason, they think it's the best way to win. And while they might be right -- I'm not going to argue that taking an elite quarterback out of the game raises the opposition's chances of winning -- that approach is completely wrong.
I’ve faced adversity at times in my life, and here’s what I’ve learned: There’s nothing satisfying about winning unless it’s a fair fight. Unless it's face-to-face, heart-to-heart. And as long as everyone's abiding by the rules, I don't mind playing until a clear victor emerges. In fact, at times, I even enjoy it. Because when it's a clean game, I know that when it's over, my opponent and I can give each other a friendly smack on the ass, say "good game," and walk away satisfied, knowing we believed in ourselves and gave it our all. For me, it's the only way.
Too bad some of the guys in the NFL don’t feel the same.