The Saints’ Bounty Program Will Send The NFL’s Concussion Debate Into Overdrive… And Probably Change Nothing
When Chargers offensive lineman Kris Dielman had to retire yesterday following the aftereffects of a head injury suffered in a game last year, it was the NFL's latest unwelcome reminder that it has a concussion problem. The debate over what the league should do to prevent players from getting concussions - or if there's anything it can do (beyond helping retired players who already have brain injuries following a career's worth of hard hits) that wouldn't rob the game of its essence - is constant.
And thanks to another unwelcome development today, that debate's only going to get louder and louder. That development: the league announced today, following an investigation by its security department, that over the last three seasons, the New Orleans Saints had a bounty program in which defensive players would receive payouts for knocking opposing players out of games. Some of the details:
The investigation showed that the total amount of funds in the pool may have reached $50,000 or more at its height during the 2009 playoffs. The program paid players $1,500 for a "knockout" and $1,000 for a "cart-off," with payouts doubling or tripling during the playoffs.
According to the report, over 20 defensive players - with, apparently, the full help of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (who left for the Rams when they hired Jeff Fisher), participated. And it wasn't exactly a secret in the organization:
Saints general manager Mickey Loomis failed to stop the bounty program when directed to do so by Saints owner Tom Benson, while coach Sean Payton was aware of the allegations but did not pursue them or take steps to stop the "bounty" program, according to the investigation's findings.
This isn't so good for the NFL because not only does it fly in the face of the message it wants to project about caring for the health of its players, not only was the entire Saints management food chain apparently aware of it and it didn't stop, but... these are the Saints. This is one of the league's marquee franchises of recent seasons. The first year this program was reportedly in place, the Saints won the Super Bowl. And they kept on winning in the two seasons that followed - being held up as a shining example of New Orleans' post-Katrina recovery all the while. (Maybe the only bright spot: Drew Brees doesn't play defense.)
Of course, there might be another upside for the NFL in all this - they might be able to turn this situation on its head (and PR in its favor) with harsh penalties. There's no question they'll try - commissioner Roger Goodell was already quoted in a statement saying behavior like the Saints' "will not be tolerated," and you can bet the "appropriate discipline" the league settles on will include, at the least, a lot of wallets being significantly lightened.
But will (potentially) flipping the public opinion script actually get the NFL any closer to actually fixing what ails it (or more to the point, ails its players) as far as concussions are concerned? Not really. Football's a rough game - rough enough that, well, is anyone really surprised a team was using a bounty system like this? Defensive football is, essentially, about hitting people hard. Defensive players like to hit people hard. Defensive coaches like to see their players hit people hard. We'd be surprised if this were the only such system around the league.
Of course, for the NFL, the fact that no real solution to the concussion problem is imminent - indeed, that no real solution exists - probably won't matter. We don't love the NFL in spite of the violence, we love it because of it. Whatever it might say about us, the pervasive problems of head injuries, and tragic cases like that of Dave Duerson, don't ultimately change that. They make us uncomfortable enough to acknowledge the issue, and the NFL uncomfortable enough that it has to do something. But they haven't made us uncomfortable enough to stop watching.
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