Sunday, March 04, 2012

Wanted: Torn ACL or Alive

The New Orleans Saints will be punished severely by the NFL for having run a bonus system in which payers were paid bounties for collisions which injured opposing players That's as it should be. It's a dangerous practice in an already dangerous sport.

It's also bad for business. By and large, football fans would prefer not to confront the sport's ultimate truth -- that it's based on hurting people. The Saints are guilty of rubbing America's nose in the truth. Can't have that.

But there's also an inherent logical contradiction in the league's praiseworthy attempts to control the violence it generates. The sanctions to be levied on the Saints seem eerily similar to the sanctions NASCAR levied on driver Jimmie Johnson and pit chief Chad Knaus for the serious crime of altering their stock car to make it go faster. Isn't that the basic point of automobile racing in the first place?

The contradiction at the root of football's attitude towards itself was best expressed back in the 1980s by Hall of Fame Seahawks wide receiver Steve Largent. An opposing defense back had injured Largent with an illegal hit that wasn't flagged. After returning to action, in the first game Largent played against that opponent, he leveled the offender with a perfectly legal crackback block that knocked the other guy out of the contest.

Largent, a devout Christian, said afterwards "I wasn't trying to hurt him, just to hit him as hard as I could."

How are those two concepts different? I didn't know then and 25 years later I still don't. Neither does the NFL. Neither does any philosopher who ever lived.

Try as it might, and it's trying harder than ever before, the league is not going to eliminate the nasty fact that players who are good at hurting people tend to become successful and wealthy out of it. Look at Ndamukong Suh. He's the best-known defensive lineman in the league. Why? Oh, I don't know. Does it have something to do with his stepping on an opponent's head?

Imagine if you will some new defensive terror in the NFL, a Super Deacon Jones or Lawrence Taylor, who knocked a quarterback out of a game once a month with perfectly legal hits and caused one running back limpoff a game. The NFL would react in two ways. The league office would change the rules to make the legal hits on quarterbacks illegal. But it'd be too late, as the violent player would already have become as famous and on his way to being as rich as Tom Brady.

That's why bounty systems should be sanctioned. They're carrying very nasty coals to Newcastle. Nobody had to pay Rodney Harrison a bounty to hit people. The defenders who're best at violence don't need chump change reward systems to encourage them. It comes naturally. It's significant that the defenses of Greg Williams, the coach at the heart of the bounty scandal, have always been mediocre at best. Those that can't teach, bribe, I guess.

And of course, there are so many ways around the NFL rules outlawing the bounty system, the Saints should be punished for being stupid enough to run theirs, too. Discreet minor contract extensions for defensive players who hurt opponents given out after a season would do it. Who's to prove that's why they were rewarded?

The NFL's position on bounties that "it's rough enough out there without this shit" is wholly justified. Futile, but justified. Outlawing the bounty system is much like a guy ordering three pieces of chocolate cream pie in a diner, then putting Sweet 'n Low in his coffee. Rules can't alter the reality that there must be rewards for violence in a violent sport men play for money.

There's not a franchise out there that wouldn't load up semis full of $100 bills to send to the house of the next Deacon Jones or Lawrence Taylor. Or even the next Ndamukong Suh.


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