What is it called when football players are given significant sums of money to hurt their opponents on the field? You may think the term is "National Football League." But apparently it's "bounty."
That's what the New Orleans Saints allegedly paid for any hit that left an opposing player groggy, bloody, lame or otherwise unable to continue his participation in the contest. A league investigation found that rewards started at $1,000, for a hit that required someone to be assisted from the field—and went as high as $10,000 in one playoff game for delivering Brett Favre's head on a platter.
The system reportedly was financed by players, with fatherly assistance from defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. And the practice had sturdy roots. "The NFL said that neither Coach Sean Payton nor General Manager Mickey Loomis did anything to stop the bounties when they were made aware of them or when they learned of the league's investigation," reported The New York Times.
It would be an overstatement to say that anyone is shocked by the news that teams would succumb to the temptation to try to win by underhanded means—or that players would get extra cash for separating a quarterback from his senses. It's a violent game; winning is good for your career; and gentle souls tend to get weeded out in high school.
Even victims shrugged off the report. Former San Diego linebacker Shawne Merriman, whose knee was injured in what he says was a bounty-inspired hit, wrote on Twitter, "Why is this a big deal now? Bounties been going on forever."
Favre, who suffered an ankle injury in that game with New Orleans, told Sports Illustrated he wasn't mad: "It's football. I don't think anything less of those guys."
Nor is it exactly unprecedented for players to act with malice aforethought. In 1977, St. Louis Cardinals offensive lineman Conrad Dobler's habit of punching, kicking and spitting on opponents landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated as "Pro Football's Dirtiest Player."
Oakland Raiders safety Jack Tatum permanently paralyzed New England Patriots receiver Darryl Stingley—and the title of his memoir, "They Call Me Assassin," did not ooze contrition.
Chicago Bears great Dick Butkus, who occasionally left bite marks, once insisted, "I wouldn't ever set out to hurt anyone deliberately unless it was, you know, important—like a league game or something." It didn't keep him out of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But the advance of civilization, or something, has brought a diminished tolerance for wanton destruction. Pitchers are no longer allowed to bounce baseballs off of hitters' heads, and the National Hockey League has taken steps to prevent concussions. Even football fans know the difference between a hard tackle and aggravated assault.
Under the relentless spotlight that is focused on major sports, standards are bound to become tighter than in the old days. After all, we no longer blithely accept child labor or deadly mine disasters or rivers that catch fire from pollution.
If the NFL fails to take vigorous action to stamp out bounties, it runs the risk of alienating fans and steering parents toward soccer and volleyball. Anyone who thinks strict rules will produce a sissy game is welcome to test the thesis by getting between Ray Lewis and a running back.
Fortunately, bounties shouldn't be hard to banish. Combating steroid use requires a comprehensive and sophisticated testing regime because many athletes fear they need performance enhancers just to stay in the game. Getting a bounty is not so enticing because it has no career payoff. Players and coaches can be cured through penalties that greatly exceed the rewards.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell merely has to make a few conspicuous examples. Ban offenders for a season, levy six-figure fines, strip teams of draft picks and voila, no one will think $1,000 is worth the risk. The NFL could also offer handsome bounties of its own to anonymous tipsters.
Any rule can be circumvented, of course, and proving a scheme of this sort may be hard. But the NFL doesn't need to be infallible in detecting such misconduct. It only needs to instill in potential cheaters a significant fear they'll be caught—and the certainty that if they are, they'll pay a high price.
The NFL has a penalty called "unnecessary roughness." Goodell now has to prove it's not an oxymoron.