Millions of people, devout and non-devout fans alike, engage in fantasy football leagues every year. As fantasy team managers, we often cheer for opposing teams’ players to get hurt and miss a few quarters for the purpose of winning our matchups. Cruel, perhaps, but the moral lines in fantasy football are blurry at best.
Contrasting the fantasy world is the actual NFL, a league that spends much energy on improving the safety of the game. Football is a violent sport no doubt—the nature of the game is to hit the player with the ball—but the morality of the sport is rarely compromised.
The NFL’s moral facade was put into question last week when news spread that the New Orleans Saints, a previously admirable franchise, had instituted a bounty program among its defensive unit spanning from 2009 (the year they won the Super Bowl) to 2011. The program financially rewarded players for great performances, big hits, and knocking opposing players out of games. While players contributed to funding the pool, Gregg Williams, the coach of this defensive unit, was the man in charge. It was later reported that Williams had implemented similar programs in his previous coaching stints in Buffalo and Washington—stand-up guy, to say the least.
The reaction from the media has been incredibly negative. People are calling for Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, to suspend, fine, and serve other punishments that would be detrimental to the Saints franchise.
What’s more interesting is the reaction from both current and former players. While some players have openly expressed disgust with Williams and the Saints’ players, others have been quite tepid with their responses. Retired quarterback Brett Favre, a victim of the Saints’ program who sustained an ankle injury during a playoff game in 2009, noticeably accepted the Saints’ actions, even after looking back on a few of the questionable hits in that playoff game. Other current players have come out to say that these bounty programs exist among many of the NFL teams.
With all of these players speaking out, it’s not out of the question to believe that the majority of NFL teams have these bounty-type pools in place. Then, if it’s so embedded into the league’s underlying culture, so much so that it evaded the public eye for years, is it so wrong and should we be that surprised?
The goal of any NFL franchise is to win, and undoubtedly, the chances of winning significantly increase if the opponents’ star players are knocked out of the game. Moreover, football is a game that is fueled by intimidation. Tough, hard-hitting teams like the Ravens and Steelers are feared because their hits are known around the league to be harder.
However, intimidation tactics and being financially rewarded for intentionally attempting to injure opponents are completely different. The bounty system exemplifies everything against the league’s code, both from a legal and moral standpoint. You try to hit the player with the ball as hard as you can, but to affect their next games, seasons, or even their lives after football is simply classless.
Furthermore, the NFL’s reputation is affected beyond the field, as it sends a terrible message to kids who aspire to play football at any level, and may make parents even more reluctant to let their children play what is already considered a violent sport.
The difference between the Saints and the rest of the NFL (at least according to current reports) is that the coaches were involved. Even Saints Head Coach Sean Payton and General Manager Mickey Loomis admitted to being aware of the program, but neglected to do anything to stop it after being advised to do so. It’s the coaches’ and management’s resonsibility to keep their players in check and discipline them when necessary. Condoning these actions, like Williams did, or neglecting to do anything about it, like Payton and Loomis, taints the entire Saints leadership team, franchise, and the NFL.
I hope that Commissioner Goodell drops his hammer on the Saints by doling out appropriate punishments for this unsportsmanlike program. And to those Saints involved: go home, hardly anyone wants you marching into NFL stadiums anytime soon.