A Bounty of Questions
Issue   |   Tue, 03/13/2012 - 22:25

Another champion disgraced.

Doesnʼt that phrase sound familiar? The 2004 New England Patriots come to mind first: outside of New England, popular opinion holds this team as a bunch of worthless cheaters after “Spygate” came to light.

Then, thereʼs Reggie Bush, who had to forfeit his 2005 Heisman Trophy because he received benefits from USC that were “improper” by the NCAAʼs definition.

Count in every baseball player who is known or suspected to have taken steroids; we discount their accomplishments, asserting that their ingestion of foreign substances can fully explain their inflated numbers.

Add Floyd Landis, stripped of his trophy in the 2006 Tour De France — the entirety of which he completed while suffering from bone-on-bone hip arthritis — for doping, a notoriously widespread training tactic in cycling. And now, we have the bounty scandal.

In this case, the target of our collective animosity is the coaching staff of the 2009-10 Super Bowl champion Saints.

We recently learned that Gregg Williams, the Saintsʼ defensive coordinator, paid defensive players for inflicting game-ending injuries on opponents. It is unclear how long this program was in place, but we know it definitely existed during that championsip season. We also heard that Sean Payton knew about the bounty system but did not take any action against it (an idea that instinctively reminds us all of Joe Paterno!).

Now, some of us are decrying the entire Saints organization, especially the players themselves, as unscrupulous thugs, and — when weʼre really feeling bold — we call the legitimacy of their on-field performance into question. We say that having an extra financial incentive was somehow unfair and could have affected the results of the entire season.

For some of us, it doesnʼt change anything to hear what the former players themselves have to say, even when they all say the same thing: this kind of activity is ubiquitous in the NFL. We are in the habit of skipping over the difficult questions. Donʼt these illegitimate but common practices usually give us more of exactly what we want, like home runs or, in this case, controlled violence? Does the underlying culture of the NFL need to change? Or is all the fuss more about the implications for the NFL as a corporate product than the egregious nature of the offense itself? Instead, we vilify the Saints, our national heroes such a short time ago, and we lay the blame squarely on Williams, Payton and the Saints defenders.

We seem to get a kick out of this. Iʼm not for a moment suggesting that cheating, taking drugs and violating rules are just fine because, for many reasons, they are not. Iʼm also not denying that those who are caught violating a rule pretty much have to be punished — thatʼs self-explanatory.

What bothers me is the way in which we prefer to go after individuals rather than whole systems, even when we know better. Anyone who suggests that “itʼs just part of the game” is pronounced a hopeless cynic: we would rather cling to idealism than try to address reality. Further, every time something like this happens, we act surprised. We manufacture a scandal. We savor it.

Sensationalism is at the heart of our culture, whether within sports or outside of them, but that doesnʼt mean it shouldnʼt be challenged, even when it comes to an institution that is admittedly here for our entertainment.

The truth is that the NFL is not pretty, and we wouldnʼt have it any other way. In a profession that requires players to risk their bodies with reckless abandon week after week, players will find unusual ways to stay motivated, some of which the average person might find appalling.

This should not be news, and we should not hold it against particular players or teams. Try getting blocked by a 350-pound offensive lineman 40 times in three hours: if you survive, the impulse to get an edge (however necessary) will strike you considerably less shocking.

The fact that the Saints broke the rules is a separate matter entirely, one that cannot fairly be judged in the “peopleʼs court.” I donʼt condone bounty programs as a matter of principle, but, then again, Iʼm not sure that making a living by instigating full-force collisions for other peopleʼs amusement appeals to me so much, either.

That is, my personal, moralistic opinion is worth very little — or, at least, itʼs a completely different topic of discussion. Would the NFL have bothered to create a rule against bounties if they did not carry such potential for public relations disasters (as we are seeing here)? Would NFL players, not usually our most civilized citizens in the first place, try to injure each other anyway, even if nobody were paying them extra (hint: probably!)? Who knows. The league has issued fines as it sees fit, and that should be that.

Besides, in the end, we are really the ones that have a problem. We enjoy watching others destroy their muscles, bones and brains in pursuit of glory, and we probably always have.

Still, when we really think about this, itʼs difficult for us to deal with. So, when we see this reflected in a way we donʼt like, we point the finger at the latest victim rather than at ourselves. In a way, we are the bounty hunters, reaping the benefits by reassuring ourselves that we are not the very “thugs” we hate.

But thatʼs just part of the game.