Saints They Ain't
Did you hear about the New Orleans Saints? The NFL reports that defensive players for the New Orleans Saints have been receiving bounties for hurting players on the opposing team. At first, I didn’t want to believe this story but when the Saints’ Defensive Coach Gregg Williams admitted it was true, I became incredulous. What the hell was going on in that locker room? Was a win so important that the players felt compelled to go out to hurt someone to achieve it? Apparently so. In fact, Coach Williams, who left the Saints for the Saint Louis Rams, has been associated with other teams that are also under investigation for the same bounty program, including Washington, Buffalo and Houston-Tennessee. (Here’s a question: why does this man keep going to places with “Saint” in the name? Clearly, he’s not one.)
Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams © Tyler Kaufmann/Cal Sport Media/ZUMA Press
This evening, Saints head coach Sean Payton and GM Mickey Loomis made a joint announcement saying, “These are serious violations and we understand the negative impact it has on our game. Both of us have made it clear within our organization that this will never happen again, and make that same promise to the NFL and most importantly to all of our fans.” Payton and Loomis took full responsibility for the problem while deflecting any responsibility away from Saints owner Tom Benson.
For those who still don’t believe this story, the NFL spent three years investigating the allegations and in their report, released Friday, indicated the bounty program was privately funded by players under the aegis of Coach Williams. (For the record, he cooperated in the investigation and apologized for his part in it. We could believe him; or, we could be cynical and think he’s being cooperative so he doesn’t get too heavily penalized.) Meanwhile, players such as Brett Favre and Kurt Warner were targeted and even taken out. According to Sports Illustrated, the NFL sent out a confidential memo to all 32 teams that said, in part, "At times, players both pledged significant amounts and targeted particular players. For example, prior to a Saints playoff game in January 2010, defensive captain Jonathan Vilma $10,000 in cash to any player who knocked Favre out of the game.''
As this story continues to grow, there are all kinds of reports circulating about other, similar activities at other teams. For example, there’s a rumor that Washington Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs used to hand out $100 bills to anyone who put a big hit on the opposing quarterback. When you think about it, could the Steelers’ James Harrison – he who is known for making big hits and has been fined for doing so – be part of such a bounty program? Or how about that Detroit thug, Ndamukong Suh, who was suspended for two games for stepping on an opponent’s face?
What about the neck injuries sustained by Colts QB Peyton Manning (which required four surgeries and is reportedly the cause for his release from the only team he’s played for in his 14-year career) – could they have been instigated by such a program? Where does this story end? More importantly, when will the thuggery stop…when every opposing quarterback or running back or wide receiver or tight end is taken off the field on a stretcher?
Most sports analysts believe that the Saints will be hit hard by Commissioner Roger Goodell for this unsaintly behavior. Some predict a loss of draft picks, a hefty fine, no post-season participation. Others think that defensive coach Williams, who was just hired by the Rams, will be fined or suspended (which seems fair to Williams but unfair to the Rams). There’s no doubt that Commissioner Goodell will bring down his heavy hammer to put a stop to this horrible practice. But, will fines and suspensions and other penalties make a difference? Will they make the bounties stop?
Some believe this kind of behavior is just part of the culture of the sport. After all, the objective of football is for one team to take the ball as far as it can while the other team tries to stop it. Naturally, things are going to get physical. But, when did physical play reach such dangerous proportions? Could it be when the money got bigger…or when fans became more demanding…or when the sport transformed into entertainment. Football players have to stop this culture of hurt. It’s one thing to be competitive. It’s quite another to maim and damage opponents. The football players themselves must take a stand and make this behavior come to an end.
However, whether we want to believe it or not, we are also part of the problem. When we sit in our living rooms and cheer for the defense to take down the quarterback, we are contributing to the problem. When we pay our satellite or cable operator hundreds of dollars a season to watch every NFL game on television, we are making the problem worse. When we plunk down $2,000 for a ticket to the Super Bowl game, we are giving the players an expensive canvas on which to perform their “art.” We can’t just expect the pros to stop this horrible behavior without a good reason; we have to take ownership of the problem, too. We must find a way to tell the NFL that we won’t accept this kind of thug behavior any longer.
I remember when my son was 12 and playing football for his sixth grade team. He was the quarterback on offense and the middle linebacker on the defense. When he was lining up at QB, I could hear a mother (a mother!) scream out to her son from the opposite side of the field: “Get him! Bring him down!” I was aghast…she was telling her son to hurt my child! I did what I could to control my temper but finally, I couldn’t remain quiet. “Did you hear what that woman just said?” I asked the school’s headmaster. He smiled and said in a comforting manner, “It’s okay. It’s all part of the game.”
But, my point was then and still is now: why does it have to be? I’m not suggesting that the NFL turn into the Power Puff league but there must be a compromise between the two that works for the players, the coaches and the fans. There has to be. Football must be saved from itself and soon. Otherwise, there’s more hurt in store for the players and possibly more serious damage. And, let’s face it: if the Saints are no longer saints, what hope do the rest of the teams have?
What do you think? Do you want the Saints to pay? Do you think this kind of physical play is an important part of the game? Post your thoughts below.