Football is a violent sport. But the point of football is the sport, not the violence.
If, and I repeat if, all the allegations about the New Orleans Saints' "bounty" program against opposing players are true as alleged in news reports, then Saints former Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams and Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis should both be banned from the National Football League for life, Saints head coach Sean Payton ought to be fined at least a million dollars, and some Saints players should be suspended for as long as a full season (with concomitant loss of salaries). The Saints ought to be docked their 2nd round draft choice this year (they have no first rounder in 2012) and another 2nd and 3rd rounder next year.
And other teams, such as the Washington Redskins, that also had bounty systems should pay at least some price as well, even if a far lesser one.
Again, these sanction suggestions are based on current reporting. The reports are that A) Williams directly oversaw, at Washington and New Orleans, a "bounty" system whereby players were rewarded not just for good plays such as interceptions and fumble recoveries, but actually for injuring opponents; B) that Loomis knew about the program, was ordered to stop it, and instead allowed it to continue while denying its existence; C) that Payton vaguely knew about it and did nothing to stop it; D) that some players were more active participants than others, with middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma reportedly offering a $10,000 bounty for knocking star quarterback Brett Favre out of the NFC championship game in 2010.
Let's unpack these issues. First, let's explain what should not be at issue here: good, clean hits. If the NFL has a rule against bonuses for good plays such as fumble recoveries, big catches, or anything else clean and legal, then it's a stupid rule. The NFL is full of stupid rules. The NFL has gone overboard in penalizing clean hits where helmets happen to touch other helmets, or where "defenseless" receivers are separated from the ball (how, in the high-speed course of a play, are defenders supposed to figure out when a receiver is "defenseless" or not???), or where quarterbacks are treated by the officials like porcelain dolls rather than like athletes in a violent sport. Yes, even stupid rules ought to be followed and enforced (until repealed), but violations thereof should not carry major penalties.
The NFL also is hardly a beacon of morality. It nearly rivals Hollywood in the way it peddles smut (Madonna at halftime? Really?) and other cultural debasements. But it offers a game that is endlessly fascinating, brawny and brainy at the same time, hugely entertaining -- and operated on the most level playing field, with a salary cap and other equalizers, in professional sports.
Part of that level playing field includes an insistence that rules (even stupid ones) be followed -- and a large number of the rules, especially recently, are specifically designed to protect players from reckless infliction of injuries. This protects both the integrity of the game itself (teams should not lose their best players, and thus a decent chance of victory to cheap shots) and the basic human values that insist that nobody should be deliberately maimed for life. We are, after all, civilized people. We have moved beyond gladiators-versus-lions, beyond the Aztec game of ullamaliztli where the penalty for defeat is death. We want no more Darryl Stingley incidents (even though that hit itself was perfectly legal). We want fewer Mike Websters suffering horrible maladies while their lives are cut short.
Yet these are the sorts of things that Williams and Vilma -- and Loomis by extension, if reports are accurate -- actively encouraged. This is not about intimidating somebody or hitting them hard in order that they be less able to play well; this is about hurting them so badly that they cannot play at all. Even in a violent game like football, this is unconscionable.
I write this as an absolutely devoted Saints fan whose family has held season tickets since the first year of the franchise, who never missed a home game even when the team went 1-15, who can recite details of games in 1970 like they were yesterday, who helped cover Saints games for the Times-Picayune, who played golf with members of the Saints, and who once tried to start a groundswell for Archie Manning to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame eight years before any of his sons ever took an NFL snap. I literally cried with joy when the Saints returned to the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina. I've fallen on the floor literally gasping for breath after a last-second win. I've drunk a toast in absentia to a kicker named Happy Feller 40 years after he last attempted a field goal. I would no more want to see the Saints be put at a competitive disadvantage than I would want to see a good friend thrown in jail.
But bounties for injuries are reprehensible. They must be made grounds for severe penalties. Yes, the league ought to investigate reports that other teams do the same thing, and punish them accordingly as proof comes in. But for now, the Saints, and their increasingly ineffective former coach Gregg Williams (he's the king of having one good year and then having his defenses deteriorate), should be made into strong, negative examples. Nothing should be done which puts the Saints at such a competitive disadvantage that the league balance is thrown askew and that the fans, too, be horrendously punished for something not their fault. But any well-calibrated penalties pushing right up to the edge of competitive disability ought to be contemplated, and probably assessed.
Even in a violent game, barbarity has no place.