You’re Not Really Outraged By the Saints’ Bounty Program

Pretending to be offended by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' actions is hypocritical for football fans.

So, you’re disgusted by the news that New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams ran a bounty program for three years? Outraged that he might have done the same thing as Redskins D-coordinator and the Bills’ head coach?

Knock it off.

No matter what the NFL does to Williams, Saints’ head coach Sean Payton, team GM Mickey Loomis and the franchise itself, fans–and most members of the media–should refrain from decrying the horrors of Williams’ behavior. The underlying truth of professional football is that the players are engaging in organized and legalized violence, and those who watch are satisfying a primal urge to see carnage at a safe distance and without guilt. And if Williams was paying his charges for the most brutal results of their work, we shouldn’t conjure synthetic outrage.

Bounties have been a part of professional football for a while. (See Ryan, Buddy.) Players have delighted in extra payments of $500 or $1,000, because it’s money that their accountants, agents and wives don’t know they have. They can use it for charitable contributions, scholarship seed money or lap dances. If you think they hit people extra hard because some walking-around cash was at stake, then you haven’t been following the sport too closely. The bonus dough is a perk. These guys have always wanted to knock offensive opponents out of games; this just makes that behavior a little more profitable.

Don’t think so? Back in 2010, I wrote an article for Athlon Sports NFL Yearbook about the growing success of NFL passing attacks. Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer outlined the first step that had to be taken to slow down the hailstorm of footballs. “Until we get some quarterbacks hurt, they’re going to keep throwing,” he said. He didn’t mention bounties or vendettas, just simple football logic: If the quarterbacks are prone and writhing, they can’t saturation-bomb secondaries into surrender.

And it’s not like the QBs were outraged by Zimmer’s statement. Houston’s Matt Schaub was completely aware of the strategy and dismissed it as an occupational hazard.

“That’s always the defense’s goal,” Schaub said. “They want to get to the quarterback. They want to knock us down and knock us around. They want to get into our heads that we have to get rid of the ball a split-second earlier than we want. We know we’re going to get hit. We just have to deal with it.”

Here’s something fans and appalled media might want to remember about the NFL: It’s a relentlessly brutal game. Players willingly shave years (and perhaps decades) off of their lives for the glory and remuneration of being part of the league. And what do the onlookers do? They glorify those who play hurt, celebrate players who hit harder than subway trains and bow down to those who take the abuse. One of the reasons DeSean Jackson is considered an unwise long-term investment for the Eagles is that he isn’t willing to go over the middle and get throttled. His sensibility is a detriment to his long-term football success, even if it will keep him alive and functioning at a high rate longer. More than that, his instinct for self-preservation is considered a character flaw on the gridiron. Jackson doesn’t want to sustain a third concussion that could leave him demented at age 60 and is therefore considered somewhat soft.

Just because ESPN discontinued its weekly “Jacked Up” paean to gridiron savagery doesn’t mean TV networks don’t glorify the violence. And that fans don’t stop craving it. When a defender flattens a ballcarrier or receiver, the collision is replayed endlessly, and a ghoulish focus is directed to the specific body part most affected by the impact. Fans and media certainly lionize those performers capable of singular athletic feats, but they save some of their loudest praise for those who can scramble opponents’ synapses.

Expect NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to impose some pretty harsh penalties on all involved. Williams could receive a year’s suspension, while Payton and Loomis, who were complicit in the scheme, could be out of work for a while, too. The Saints could be docked draft picks. Fines will abound. If Goodell, who has made quite a display of “protecting” players–all the while failing to give satisfaction to retirees who demand reparations for the abuse they absorbed–doesn’t rain terror down on Williams and the Saints, he will be excoriated. So, expect a show trial and some big-time punishments.

But don’t expect the roiling waters of violence to stop coursing through the NFL. The league thrives on the fierce nature of its games, and those who watch and cover it delight in the ability to satisfy their primal desires without having to engage in brutal pursuits themselves. If Williams were a Pop Warner coach or a high school mentor, his behavior would be real reason for disgust. But this is the NFL, where players are expected to hurt each other, so let’s can the hypocritical outrage. If you’re truly appalled, turn in your season tickets and start watching flag football games or tennis. Until you’re ready to do that, enjoy the NFL for what it is.

Keep your eyes on the big picture, not the small change.


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