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Mutually Assured Destruction, The N.F.L. Way

March 6, 2012

The N.F.L recently released the results of an investigation into the New Orleans Saints which found that the team’s defense had created a “bounty” pool which awarded players for hits that injured opposing players, forcing them to the sideline ($1,000) or to leave the game ($1,500). The pool was managed by then-defensive doordinator Gregg Williams, who has since moved on to the Saint Louis Rams, and was in place when the Saints defeated the Indianapolis Colts to win the Super Bowl. In the game before their Super Bowl victory, linebacker Jonathan Vilma reportedly offered $10,000 for anyone who knocked Brett Favre out of the game. (Despite injuries, Favre was able to finish the game.) Head coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis were made aware of the pool during the early stages of the N.F.L.’s investigation in 2010 and did nothing to stop it, even after they were directed to by the Saints’ owner.

Two bad First, the bounty looks horrible for the league, which has been under scrutiny because of recent revelations and lawsuits regarding the long-term health effects of concussions. Recent studies have shown that even sub-concussive collisions – those that don’t result in unconsciousness or other significant symptoms that can be noticed by trainers and which happen on almost every play in football – can cause long-term damage to a players’ brain. The implication, then, is that players who haven’t experienced any actual “concussions,” or even big hits, are still risking their long-term mental health by playing football. If the N.F.L. doesn’t find a way to eliminate or greatly reduce this risk, football as we know it may cease to exist – what parents would let their kids bump their brain around with those long-term risks? While the bounties weren’t specific to hits that caused concussions, they presumably were awarded for hits that caused concussions. This is the opposite of what the league, after much delay is trying to do right now. Teams and players should be supporting those efforts instead of acting against them.

Teams and players should also be supporting the efforts for their own sakes. Aside from concussions, football is a dangerous game. One study showed that every year spent on an N.F.L. roster reduced a player’s lifespan by three years. N.F.L. players should be trying to counteract that (somewhat horrific) statistic so, for their own well-being, they should be acting in ways that increase on-field safety. The creation of a bounty system on one team encourages the creation of a similar system on other teams and the net result is more injuries across the league. It’s a type of mutually assured destruction. In a certain way, it’s the players’ union that should be most upset about the pool, as it is the union that is expected to protect the players. The union should support proposals that impose stricter penalties for coaches, front-office officials, and players involved in bounty pools.

Ultimately, however, it is the league itself that has the authority to punish those involved in the Saints’ pool. As the ringleader, Williams should be punished most harshly. Though some are calling for a lifetime ban, I think that would be an unjustifiably harsh penalty for a first-of-its-kind offense. A year-long suspension would put others in the league on notice while giving Williams a chance to reform his behavior – which he does deserve as nobody else has been punished for this before. Future offenders will have notice and should be punished more forcefully.

Update: The N.F.L. Players Association has announced that it will do its own investigation and asked the league to delay disciplinary action until their investigation is complete.

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