The following should not come as a newsflash: Football is a savage game, waged by self-proclaimed gladiators.
The sport has no room for the soft or merciful, a statement that is more applicable to the game’s greater culture than to those who contest it at its highest level. Indeed, before passing judgement on the New Orleans Saints and their bounty program, it would be foolish to overlook from whence the mentality originates.
Beginning in Pop Warner youth leagues, where kids as young as 5 years old – aptly named “Tiny-Mites” – are taught how to tackle, to high school programs that establish pecking orders primarily through hitting drills that (rightfully) reward those who can pack the most hurt, football athletes are hardwired early, with the welcome-and-embrace-violence mentality repeatedly hammered in at every subsequent level of competition.
So then, why all the disbelief and outrage at the actions perpetrated by the Saints? Should it really come as a surprise that grown men who are paid specifically for their ability to inflict harm on other grown men have taken it upon themselves to also pay one another in pursuit of the same end? Anyone who believes so fails to grasp the most fundamental aspect of football.
Now there is naturally a moral argument at play here, and it’s evident in the circles of prayer that take place among combatants whenever a player is seriously injured. The game may be savage, but football players, in the end, are not.
Therein lies the issue, however, because up until that point when someone is lying motionless on the gridiron, the way in which a football player is hardwired allows for only one objective: destroy. The alternative is to be destroyed or be out of a job. It’s that simple, and it’s a reality that fans are able to grasp implicitly. But when the curtain is drawn and elements of the game’s nasty underbelly revealed – when the speculated becomes corroborated – there’s no going back.
That’s the crux of the matter with the Saints and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s unprecedented – and warranted – leveling of the organization through suspensions, fines and forfeitures of draft picks.
It’s not merely the act of issuing bounties that is such a symbolic black eye – the bounty system is (well, was) surely practiced by other players and teams – it’s the act of getting caught, and the ramifications for the sport in a day and age where issues of player safety have finally come to the forefront.
While I do not condone the practice of putting a bounty on someone’s head, I’m a realist. I know what makes football great and so lucrative of an enterprise, and to believe there isn’t a healthy amount of unholiness involved in creating the product is simply naive.
The problem is, not only did the Saints commit the ultimate faux pas by allowing everyone a glimpse behind the curtain, but the brazenness and defiance that characterized the whole thing insulted and incensed Goodell, who does not mess around when it comes to his duty of protecting the NFL shield (see: Spygate, Michael Vick, James Harrison etc.).
“A combination of elements made this matter particularly unusual and egregious,” Goodell said in the official NFL release detailing the league’s response to the matter. “When there is targeting of players for injury and cash rewards over a three-year period, the involvement of the coaching staff, and three years of denials and willful disrespect of the rules, a strong and lasting message must be sent that such conduct is totally unacceptable and has no place in the game.”