No atheists in foxholes, no Saints on the gridiron

A few short months ago, rumors began circulating that the Saints were being investigated for what many would consider to be foul play. After a period of speculation and anticipation, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, the Templar of Player Safety, dropped the hammer. Head Coach Sean Payton was suspended for a year, the Saints organization was fined the league-maximum $500,000, and the Saints forfeited their second round draft picks for the 2012 and 2013 seasons. Additionally, GM Mickey Loomis was suspended for the first eight games of the season and assistant coach Joe Vitt was suspended for six games.

GODdell saved his BFG2000 for ex-Saints and “current” Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams: suspended indefinitely. That’s business-speak for excommunication. Banned. GTFO.

There are other details and fancy language, which you can read here.

As far as whether these punishments are necessary and whatnot, well, GODdell made inquiries on this very topic within the Saints organization after the 2009 NFC Championship game, many moons ago, and continued to do so for years. Some have declared “player’s code” against snitches, but when you stand in solidarity on the boat when the iceberg is coming, well, we know what happened to the Titanic.

The following are excerpts from ESPN’s coverage (linked above).

We are all accountable and responsible for player health and safety and the integrity of the game. We will not tolerate conduct or a culture that undermines those priorities,” said Goodell, whose league faces more than 20 concussion-related lawsuits brought by hundreds of former players. “No one is above the game or the rules that govern it.”

“We recognize our fans’ concerns and we regret the uncertainty this episode has created for them. We are humbled by the support our organization has received from our fans today in the wake of this announcement, and we ask them to continue to stand with us, as they have done in the past, when both our team and our city have overcome greater adversities,” the Saints said in a statement responding to the penalties.

“To our fans, the NFL and the rest of our league, we offer our sincere apology and take full responsibility for these serious violations. It has always been the goal of the New Orleans Saints to create a model franchise and to impact our league in a positive manner. There is no place for bounties in our league and we reiterate our pledge that this will never happen again.”

I recognize that there is a conflict of interest for a player or coach to not wish injury upon another player. After all, the same could happen to them. But that is superstition. There is no correlation between a player injuring another either consciously or inadvertently and that same player’s own bodily integrity. I am immediately dismissive of “We wouldn’t want that to happen to anyone because it could happen to us.” That is much too politically-correct for my tastes.

What I question is the perception of bounties as problematic, especially in the context of a violent sport with strong ties to Vegas. Is an intentional attempt to injure another player simply unsportsmanlike, as Goodell suggests in his “integrity of the game” statement? Is it something we would not expect of model citizens? “Do unto others as you would have done unto you”?

If so, that is quite a saintly perspective among bandits, and one would have to honestly say to themselves that winning is, in actuality, not the supreme goal of a professional sport.

I would like to address a counter-point from a colleague:

Trying to knock guys on their ass is part of the game, and there’s no question here. But when you have guys being rewarded by their coaches and other veteran players to intentionally injure opposing players, putting their careers and potentially their lives at risk (especially with this newfound emphasis on preventing concussions) for cash is just despicable. I understand that it’s just a game, but in the real world, if someone handed you 10 grand to break some guy’s ankles in the parking lot, that is a crime.

Compounded with the 09 NFCCG when the Saints were prattling on and on about giving Favre “remember me shots” and constantly hitting him late after plays (which is what initially spurred the investigation), they really signed their own death warrant in this situation.

I don’t really buy the “potential for life threatening injury” argument because NFL players have undergone physicals and signed waivers stating “YOU MAY SUSTAIN INJURY PLAYING THIS SPORT” since Pop Warner level. A player who is concerned with quality of life should not be in the NFL, and probably not play football at all.

I would buy the “if this were on the street it would be a crime” approach, except that football players aren’t on the street. (Never mind, say, hitting someone in the face outside of the octagon.) We could think of all sorts of hypotheticals, but the fact remains that linebackers are paid millions to bring the pain. Example:

Translation: “This is all we need! We gonna keep hittin’ them! We gonna keep hittin’ them! They might get back up… We’re gon’ hit ’em again! And when they’re barely hanging on, when they’re about to go home to momma, we’re gonna hit ’em in the mouth! We gonna “bloody” they nose, we’re gonna run em to the ground!”

Sounds like the language of an assault to me. Except it isn’t either unusual or illegal.

What I’m trying to figure out, again, is why any of this should be considered despicable, especially if the action takes place on the football field, with legal hits.

I wrote the above several months ago when my editor asked me for a response to Bounty-Gate. Not too much has changed since then in terms of the scandal itself. An appeal here, an appeal there. What HAS changed are the studies discussing the affects of concussions on players and questions raised concerning football’s permanence as a viable sport. I’ll get to that some other time, but I want to say that my failure to complete this piece was a result of not knowing how to proceed beyond where I was without sounding like a stereotypical jock. I was conflicted. Now that football season is upon us, I have had time to think further about why this is really a non-issue.

  1. People want to see players get smashed
  2. As I mentioned above, the players want to smash and the people want to see it. Google “Joe Theisman” for the YouTube video of his injury via Lawrence Taylor and see why his name is practically a euphemism. Hard hits make the SportsCenter top 10 highlight videos. People don’t watch boxing anymore, not because it’s corrupt, but because the best fighters today are in the smaller weight classes and they don’t have the power to knock people out.

    I personally am a fan of old-school smash-mouth style football, contrary to the direction football is going with the air-out game. Three yards and a cloud of dust.

  3. The rules revolving around “player safety” are heavily focused on facilitating an offensive game.
  4. Chris Canty said that there is a 100% injury rate in football, so the idea of focusing on “player safety” is a bit of a paradox. Individuals such as Junior Seau and what he did to himself are the exception, not the rule. Some injuries are worse than others but everyone plays hurt. In fact, Goodell wants to expand the season, which is RIDICULOUS AND HYPOCRITICAL if he is, in fact, concerned about player health.

    Nevertheless, we have new rules, such as this one from 2011:

    A receiver who has completed a catch is a “defenseless player” until he has had time to protect himself or has clearly become a runner. A receiver/runner is no longer defenseless if he is able to avoid or ward off the impending contact of an opponent. Previously, the receiver who had completed a catch was protected against an opponent who launched and delivered a blow to the receiver’s head

    To a fan of the defensive game, this is infuriating. Before this rule change, defensive players intentionally hit receivers violently to jar the ball from the after a catch to force an incomplete pass. Now, the most one can hope for is a fumble, but even that is unlikely because the receiver would have had time to solidify possession of the ball and prepare for the incoming assaults. Wide receivers like Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald are bigger, faster, stronger now, so who was the focus when this rule change came about? DeSean Jackson, who, contrary to all the fuss, was hit legally. Robinson hit him in the shoulder, rather than the head. Jackson weighs 200 pounds soaking wet with a brick in his pocket, so of course he is going to get blown up going across the middle.

    Combined with defensive holding penalties and pass interference rules, there is little defensive players can do but watch and try to react as receivers zip by them. Big hits with running backs against linebackers are rare, but they do happen. (The hit there is helmet to helmet, by the way.)

    Speaking of helmet-to-helmet hits, the only positions where there is 100% contact on every play is lineman. Defensive and offensive. They’re basically sumo wrestlers for sixty minutes, head, spine, and hips. Where is the concern for these guys — the most likely to play concussed all game? We don’t take notice of them because the cameras are not following them, and it’s a cardinal sin, more at this position than any other, to complain about pain.

  5. Overprotective rules encourage Bounty Gate to exist.
  6. Imagine the NFL mades a special rule that if a player displayes symptoms of a concussion, then they cannot return to the game. Think about it: if the concussion rule requires players to sit out, defensive coordinators can sacrifice a knight/rook/bishop for a queen — Aaron Rogers for “insert player here” — because nobody on either side of the ball is as valuable. This used to be a running joke, trying to intentionally take someone out with a sacrifice player. That’s different from hitting a wide receiver “crossing the face of a linebacker” as we call it, to check a receiver from doing so in the future, or hitting him so hard that he will “remember” and have butterfingers next time.

    Seriously, someone is going to have to explain why knocking the star quarterback out of the game is not a sound strategy in today’s pass-happy NFL. This is Sun Tzu stuff we’re talking here. If Michael Vick isn’t in the game, the defensive side of the same team has added pressure on them because they know the backup isn’t as good even if they say he is — if he were as good, he would be STARTING somewhere.

  7. Money isn’t an issue.
  8. Some have argued that cash prizes are suspect. We’re talking about people who make hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars here. (Why? See observation #1.) The bounties are chump change that only Uncle Sam would be concerned about.

We as a culture say we don’t want to see players get hurt (because many of them are our sons after all), and we clap and cheer when a player can get off the field without a stretcher because it’s proper etiquette — etiquette in a gladiator sport. That sounds akin to practicing ethics during full-scale war. No, football is hell, where there are no Saints.

Maurice Pogue spends his time spoiling the fun by taking the joke too seriously.

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