Make no mistake, the New Orleans Saints will be hit hard over the infamous ‘bounty-gate’ saga. They will likely lose draft picks, or potentially even an entire draft class. Gregg Williams will be made an example of. Sean Peyton may even sit out some games next season. Roger Goodell will exact a punishment that will astonish all of us because, simply put, to do otherwise would jeopardise his business.

When this story first came to light it was initially met with shock and widespread condemnation of the culprits. The notion that the infliction of injuries was being encouraged and indeed rewarded by money was deplorable to fans, who had never played the game, and active players alike. Kurt Warner and Brett Favre became high-profile victims of revisionist history. The hits they endured at the hands of the Saints were always seen as dangerously reckless at the very least, but now in retrospect they appear to have been callously calculated and privately celebrated. Warner and Favre have both expressed their disappointment at the story. Vikings punter Chris Kluwe decided to be more blunt in expressing his feelings, tweeting “f*** all of you that participated in that with the intent to injure”. He later appeared on a Miami based radio show and advocated lifetime bans from football for all parties involved.

I know what you are thinking at this point: are we really looking to a punter for perspective on a story about hard-hitting in the NFL? Indeed, after the dust had settled the majority of NFL analysts, (in particular former defensive players), began to dismiss the severity of bounty-gate. The issue was one of semantics. The public naturally recoils when they hear talk of a ‘bounty’, but if the matter was portrayed instead as simply a pool that rewarded big plays and hard hits then it would seem harmless enough. We were told by the likes of ESPN’s Mike Golic to “just stop it”. These players are doing an extremely difficult job at incredible speed; accordingly, ill-timed and inappropriate hits are an unavoidable natural consequence, not an indication of malicious intent. Analysts were also quick to point out that rewards in the region of $1,000-$1,500 hardly provide any real incentive for players that earn astronomically more than this per game. It is more analogous to rewarding a child with a sticker because their homework was of a high standard.

There is some validity to these arguments. But as far as Roger Goodell is concerned, they are irrelevant. This is because the NFL is currently facing one the biggest challenges in its history. The context is crucial. When Chris Henry, former Bengals WR, died in an accident in December 2009, studies of his brain revealed a disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy. This was attributed to multiple hard hits to the head. Dave Duerson was a former NFL player, most notably with the Chicago Bears in the 80’s. He committed suicide in February 2011 and left a note which included the request, “please see that my brain is given to the NFL’s brain bank”. It was confirmed by researcher neurologists at Boston University that he suffered from a neurodegenerative disease that is linked to concussion.

These are only two notable examples of a causal link between hard hits in the NFL and damage to the brain. In fact, previous studies have been alluding to this causal link for over a decade now. This may appear to be taking the discussion off on a tangent, but it is extremely pertinent to the bounty story. This is because concussions could make the NFL the new asbestos or tobacco, and lawsuits have the potential of crippling the league. Duerson’s family is currently bringing a concussion-related wrongful death lawsuit against the NFL. This is the fourth such lawsuit alleging the league’s contribution to a player’s death. With each passing week, more and more concussion-related lawsuits are being filed and a colossal consolidated claim is expected soon.

These lawsuits will undoubtedly turn on public perception. The bounty story is significant as it paints the following picture: lockerooms with guys openly exchanging high-fives and ‘straight cash homey’, (in the words of Randy Moss), because one of their teammates managed to injure an opposing player. What makes it all worse is that this is not limited to a few rogue elements that conducted their business in private. It encompassed the whole team and was actually overseen by the coaching staff. The defence that most teams in the league do the same thing does nothing to enhance the NFL’s image. It detracts further from it, as we assume knowledge on the part of the league and implied consent in the absence of harsh sanctions. They acted as facilitators. The money may be relatively unsubstantial in the context of player salaries, and maybe intent is difficult to prove, but again this is irrelevant. It is the depiction of a culture that incentivises injuries and dangerous hits, on any level, that is hurtful.

Given the timings of these lawsuits and their potential implications, it is unsurprising that the NFL broke the Saints story themselves. It has provided the perfect opportunity to send a message to prospective jurors and judges across the country: the NFL is taking this problem very seriously, and it is doing its best to safeguard the health of their players. Admittedly, this is a cynical view, but it would be naive to ignore this ulterior motive when assessing Goodell’s apparent outrage. After all, the NFL initially sought to discredit the doctors and reports that suggested links between playing in the NFL and serious long-term mental problems.

Goodell and the NFL have always been more reactive than proactive. It is all about self-preservation. Rule changes in recent years demonstrate an attempt to change public perception, but they can only go so far. A much grander spectacle is required. The NFL must show itself to be a crusader for its employees, vociferously denouncing a culture of violence that it maintains is inconsistent with the league as a whole; never mind that they used to profit by proudly selling videos of their biggest and hardest hits to bloodthirsty fans year after year. With lawsuits based on shaky arguments of causation on the horizon, winning the battle of public perception will be key. The Saints will ironically be an unwilling martyr for the cause. It’s nothing personal, it’s just business.


Oggy’s Quick Slants

  • Want more Peyton Manning talk? When Peyton was out for dinner at a North Carolina steakhouse, The Angus Barn, he left a tip of $200 on a bill of $740 that already included gratuity. The waiter took a picture of the bill and posted it online. Once his employers found out about this, the waiter was fired.
  • Brandon Lloyd has indicated that he would seriously consider a move to New England this offseason. The Patriots are in desperate need of a deep threat, having never adequately replaced Randy Moss since his departure.