Sinners and Saints
Issue   |   Tue, 04/03/2012 - 23:47

While the emotional and classy press conference announcing the release of Peyton Manning from the Indianapolis Colts immediately led to myriad musings about possible destinations for the future Hall-of-Famer, it still could not cast aside the grim shadow caused by the alleged New Orleans Saints’ bounty program.

In fact, none of the usual NFL offseason obsessions, such as free agency or April’s NFL Draft, have managed to block the bounty program from the forefront of the sports world.

While the former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has quickly become infamous for encouraging an atmosphere in which his players were paid to knock opponents out of games, the central problem in this situation cuts far more deeply into the heart of the NFL than any one man could.

Just like the Tim Donaghy scandal that put a black mark on the NBA in 2007, the exposure of the bounty program unveils a systemic issue in the league’s very structure.

In the Donaghy case, the integrity and fair outcome of NBA games were called into question by revelations that Donaghy, a longtime referee, had been gambling on games he officiated in order to pay off personal debts. This scandal rocked the NBA to the core.

The viability of any sports league, whether amateur or professional, depends critically on the assumption that the rules of the game provide an inherently unbiased method of judging the competing parties; the Donaghy case brought that crucial assumption of objectivity into question.

No longer did anyone associated with the NBA take for granted the huge role that referees play in games, and the league office realized that the repercussions for this transgression could permanently alter the future of the NBA.

Although the league has recovered from this public relations disaster to enjoy sustained popularity, the lingering doubts about the fairness of past contests involving Donaghy may never be resolved.

Just like the Tim Donaghy case represented a breach of fairness that could have devastated the NBA forever, the Saints bounty program exposed a fundamental problem of the NFL and could bring about tangible change in America’s most popular sports league.

While the game of football can be beautiful, artistic, thrilling, and inspiring, it relies on violence for much of its popular appeal. Hard hitting players and big hits are routinely celebrated by fans and the media — for example, the segment “Jacked Up!” that runs on ESPN brings attention to bone-crunching tackles and crushing quarterback sacks. Despite the recent surge of awareness regarding player safety, especially in the case of concussions and other head-related injuries, the game remains tied to the concept of violence at its very core. Without the aggressive mentality that compels players to undergo grueling physical battles against each other on every play, football would lose its identity.

The game is inextricably tied to the warrior mentality of its players and implicitly promotes an atmosphere that makes it easy to imagine a player purposefully going after an opponent with malicious intent. The revelation of an explicit bounty program, then, merely brings to light the enormous incentives for players and coaches to encourage this type of behavior. Any shock stemming from the media and NFL fan base results either from naiveté or a feigned ignorance of the violent culture apparent in all corners of the NFL. While these words seem harsh, they are not a condemnation of football and its viability as a sport; I love the game and want it to continue to flourish.

The time, however, has come to openly recognize the dangers of the game’s cutthroat nature. Whether they come in the obvious form of a monetary bounty program or the more subtle undercurrent of violence that pervades the NFL culture, the problem is not going away as long as football retains its current structure.

The bounty program is clearly an enormous issue for the league, as the very word ‘bounty’ brings to mind actual crimes such as kidnapping, but should not be a jaw-dropping piece of news for anyone who follows the sport on a regular basis.

Comparing the violations of Gregg Williams and the Saints to the Tim Donaghy scandal shows the huge problems both situations present for their league, but the bounty program could prove more damaging in one very important way.

While Tim Donaghy caused the league to lose the trust of its fans temporarily, he was most likely a rogue referee who acted alone; bounty programs, on the other hand, have probably been implemented by many teams over the years. Williams and the Saints were the only parties that got caught, but the problem extends far beyond them.

A perfect solution that reconciles the violent nature of football and the issues stemming from this bounty will likely prove elusive, but that doesn’t mean that the NFL can’t make strides towards increasing awareness of its own inherent hypocrisies.