Sports Arena

The NFL Goes Bounty Hunting

Will the league rewrite the rules of America's greatest contact sport? Let's hope not, girls.

By 3.12.12

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"I am shocked, shocked to find that gambling in going on in here," says Captain Renault in the film Casablanca as he collects his winnings and shuts down Rick's Café.

That famous line -- now a common metaphor for hypocrisy -- keeps coming back to me as I watch the NFL brass pretending to be surprised that American football has become a brutal sport with money involved. They are shocked, shocked.

Where have they been for the past 50 years?

Okay, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has admitted wrongdoing as he slipped the toughest men of the New Orleans Saints and the Washington Redskins small change for hitting as hard as they could. At the Saints, cart-off cases were earning the hitter $1500 bounty bonuses. Investigations are spreading fast, with the Titans, Jaguars, Bills and others on the list of possible offenders.

And okay, it's better to have rules and to avoid these incentives to ever greater violence in contact sports. Even boxing has its Queensberry Rules.

But hurtball has been the norm in this sport forever. The players love it. Fans love it. Advertisers love it. It's as American as apple pie.

Brett Favre says, with a manly chuckle, he wonders what all the fuss is about. He feels he was some kind of bounty target on every play. He just dealt with it.

Facemasks and neck braces were developed because of the unavoidable violence. I doubt that the brutality will ever go away.

But this scandal is as much about the payments as the crippling violence.

I come from Big Ten country where every high school lineman learns to hit hard. My coach was a former Purdue Boilermaker (admittedly a benchwarmer) who taught us how it's done -- mainly with knees and elbows. Worry about injuries? Never. He would bellow, "What are you? Some kind of girl?"

Midwest fans remember a Purdue-Indiana game that broke out in fist fights in midfield. At one point the marching bands dropped their instruments and went at it. The crowd cheered them on.

And hardcore fans fondly recall the aggressive style of Fred "The Hammer" Williamson, the Kansas City Chiefs All-Star who perfected a forearm blow to the head that was intended to knock opposing players into next week. He was a media star.

Woe betide players who object to getting clocked. Sportswriters just a few years ago mocked Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for his haste in asking for "roughing the passer" penalties in the Patriots-Ravens conference championship game. When Haloti Ngata grazed his helmet, Brady "begged for a flag to be thrown" wrote one New England scribe. "Maybe Brady was worried Ngata would mess up his hair."

"At what point do we just give these guys a red jersey and make it a game of touch football?" this sportswriter asked.

How swiftly the sands can shift. Now the sports pages are brimming with indignation.

I am worried that Pro Bowl Rules may become the future of professional football. No blitzing, no rushing the punter, no sacking. A Pro Bowl tackle is now more like a prolonged hug until two guys fall down together. I stayed up late to watch this seasons's game but switched it off in disgust after one quarter.

I don't like the direction this scandal is taking. The big guys on the field don't need the money, and they like the roughness anyway. Let them carry on but without the extra cash.

Retired NFL linebacker Coy Wire had the most hopeful comment. He does not approve of the bounty payments he told CNN, but "you can still play the game of football competitively with viciousness. It can be a violent game and… we can do it with integrity and with good old-fashioned sportsmanship."

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About the Author

Michael Johnson spent 17 years at McGraw-Hill, including six years as a news executive in New York. He now writes from Bordeaux in France.