The NFL, Battling Its Own Sick Culture

"OK, it's a deal then: we put this guy in the hospital, and split the bounty 50-50..."

The last Super Bowl was phenomenally successful, as its audience size shattered previous records. Yet for many years, I have not been able to enjoy the sport, because of the unethical conflict at its core. Pro football’s appeal and swagger is based on violence, and we now know that the violence damages its players to an unacceptable extent. The players are paid both to accept the crippling and often-life shortening abuse, as well as administer it. For this former fan, that makes football too close to boxing from an ethical perspective. If the NFL is paying  players to do permanent harm to each other, then so are the fans that pay the NFL.  Sorry: there are too many other forms of entertainment that don’t require me to endorse and subsidize brutality. Thus I was not surprised to read this, in the New York Times:

“During the past three seasons, while the National Football League has been changing rules and levying fines in an effort to improve player safety, members of the New Orleans Saints’ defense maintained a lucrative bounty system that paid players for injuring opponents, according to an extensive investigation by the N.F.L. The bounty system was financed mostly by players — as many as 27 of them — and was administered by the former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who also contributed money to the pool. The N.F.L. said that neither Coach Sean Payton nor General Manager Mickey Loomis did anything to stop the bounties when they were made aware of them or when they learned of the league’s investigation.  According to the league, Loomis did not even stop the bounties when ordered to by the team’s owner. “

This practice is not only unethical and against NFL rules, it is criminal.  It also shows that the National Football League culture, if it is to change (I am dubious that it can), will have to involve a lot more than new rules governing rough play and being more careful about treating concussions. The attitudes and values of coaches, players, and yes, fans will also have to change dramatically. I think some arrests and prosecutions might  put the message across better than fines and lost draft choices. More from the Times:

“The system paid $1,500 for knocking a player out of a game and $1,000 for when an opponent was carted off the field, with payouts doubling or tripling during the playoffs. According to one person who has seen the full N.F.L. report, the defensive captain Jonathan Vilma offered $10,000 in cash to any player who knocked Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre out of the National Football Conference championship game in January 2010. “

In no other major sport’s locker room would such inhuman plans be seriously proposed, much less taken seriously and executed. Yet the immediate reaction from players and former players was a smile and a shrug. Linebacker Shawne Merriman tweeted, “Why is this a big deal now? Bounties have been going on forever.”

Why is it a big deal that the 2009 Super Bowl champions paid players thousands to injure opposing stars, putting their health and careers in peril? Could an ethical culture possibly produce such a question? “Gee, Godfather, why are the Feds making such a bid deal over our hits on the other Families? We’ve been icing competitors since the Sicily days! It’s just business!”

So is doing serious harm to human beings, in the NFL. In another telling comment quoted by the Times,
Trevor Pryce, a former defensive lineman for the N.Y.Jets and the Baltimore Ravens said he did not believe the bounty system was as big a problem as “Spygate”, when New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick was fined a half-million dollars by the league for secretly videotaping opponants’ signals during games.

“Trust me, (these bounties) happen(s) in some form or way in any locker room,” Pryce said.  What? Stealing signals is cheating: intentionally injuring  players is cheating and shameless, vicious thuggery.  But Spygate was worse, say the players, because taping signals isn’t accepted in the NFL’s culture. Crippling people is.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement,

“It is our responsibility to protect player safety and the integrity of our game, and this type of conduct will not be tolerated. We have made significant progress in changing the culture with respect to player safety and we are not going to relent.”

These are fine words, and I wish him luck. But the Saints scandal and an earlier report on the Washington Redskins suggest to me that if teams are still paying players to send the opposition’s stars to the sidelines on a stretcher, “significant progress” is a bit of an overstatement, if not wishful thinking. The NFL culture of violence is unethical and sick, and it remains to be seen if the illness can be cured and allow the NFL to maintain the qualities that make pro football America’s most popular and profitable sport.

8 thoughts on “The NFL, Battling Its Own Sick Culture

  1. One of the worst unintended results of violent play in the NFL is that young players–youth leagues, middle schools, and high schools–watch what happens on Sundays and then try to emulate it in the following weeks in their own games. Sometimes the coaches and parents encourage it. As a youth sports official, I have tossed more than one coach and more than one parent for encouraging this kind of conduct, but I feel I am fighting an uphill battle.

  2. Jack, I am not trying to guilt you here (as if that would work, in any case). But what you say here about American football, combined with what I have long thought about boxing, is compelling me like never before to consider never watching football again (as I do with boxing), and even to consider actively advocating against anyone playing the tackling, colliding versions of the sport.

    Well, that, plus the first punch I received in a phys-ed class on boxing, plus the near fatal collision I had at age 21 with another player while playing that relatively collision-free game of basketball-with-a-football, flickerball. (the other player and I came literally within an inch of killing each other instantly.) The one full season of post-high school, full-pads, 8-man tackle football that I did play was actually, miraculously I believe, injury-free. But then, we “brothers” in that league were actually motivated NOT to hurt each other.

  3. In no other major sport’s locker room would such inhuman plans be seriously proposed, much less taken seriously and executed

    What about baseball? How do you rationalize a pitcher purposely beaning a batter–often at the direction of the manager?

    What about hockey? In any other professional sport when two athletes resorted to fisticuffs they would both be ejected–not given five minute penalties.

    The desire to observe violence and carnage is ingrained in us. From ancient Roman gladiators to medieval knights to the corporate sports of today. It isn’t just as unique to football as you argue.

  4. Nice post. Honestly, I think this story has come out at a great time for the league. This is a chance for them to really make a team pay to show that they are really serious about player safety in this league. This is clearly not the only team doing it but they now have a chance to put a stop to it because of the severity of this instance. It’s a black mark on the NFL and Saints for sure but it is also a big opportunity for the NFL to step up and deliver. Also, you think you could take a look at my blog cuz I’d love to know what you have to say

  5. I disagree that its criminal. By all reports the hits had to be “legal hits” as defined by the rules of football. So can that be breaking the law? The problem with football is that the players are getting bigger faster and stronger as the years go by and neither the rules, the equipment or especially the human body can protect the players from the violence happening to them.

    • Amen to “the problem with football.” The NFL’s version is a sport that requires collisions, and today’s game is not our grandfathers’ leather helmet version. It’s played at (and beyond) the limits of human endurance, or I should say human tissues’ endurance. Although the movies did not interest me at all, I might be entertained by “transformers” engineered to play the game and survive. But I am at the point where I can no longer stomach watching human beings doing such violence to each other, while still calling the sport’s venues “fields of friendly strife.”

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