It Isn’t Just NFL Player Safety at Stake

It’s a simple question.

Why severely punish the New Orleans Saints for allowing its defensive players to pay teammates bonuses for hits that injured opposing players?

The answer is just as simple.

It’s against the rules and against the best interests of the sport and those who play it. Football is brutal enough without ignoring bounties for hits that result in players being carted off the field.

A deliberate attempt to injure another player is simply wrong. There is no place in the sport for it.

And don’t buy the push-back from players that this practice has a long history in football and isn’t a big deal.

A practice may be common but still be wrong. A lot of people cheat, but that shouldn’t make it acceptable.

The reality is that the players often are the last ones you can listen to on the subject of player safety. It’s simply not part of their thinking. You can’t play football if you’re concerned about getting hurt.

The physical demands of the sport are drilled into players from an early age. This is a macho sport where toughness is honored and playing through pain is expected.

Those of us who speak out against cheating and breaking rules, or in this case, arguing that these player bounties should draw stiff penalties, are dismissed as not understanding the nature of the sport.

‘You haven’t played the game’, we’re told. ‘You don’t get it’.

No, I never played in the NFL or in major college football, but that doesn’t mean I don’t “get it”.

I was a quarterback in high school and played freshman ball in college. I wasn’t very big, I wasn’t very tough, and I wasn’t very good. But, I know what it’s like to play the game and to get hit.

I’ve been through nutcracker drills. I’ve had cracked ribs, a concussion. I had a small bone removed from my left wrist from landing on it so much. I can’t swing a golf club or throw a football today thanks to a partially torn rotator cuff in one shoulder and a Grade 2 SLAP tear in the other.

So, the culture of the sport is no mystery.

And the fact that this is professional football rather than amateur ball, doesn’t change things.

At any level of sport, amateur or pro, if you are a coach, a team or a league, and you become aware of a deliberate attempt to injury an opponent, you have a duty to stop it and punish those responsible.

And if you’re the NFL, accused in lawsuits of ignoring evidence of the long-term health consequences of repeated head trauma in your league, you have to take strong action.

You can’t very well increase sanctions for helmet hits by individuals in an effort to improve player safety, and then allow what you believe to be organized player pools, in which teammates get paid to deliberately injure opposing players.

There is a reason the league bans player bounties and it’s for the very reason that this story is a big deal.

Bounty programs that begin with bonuses for helping your team win — things like interceptions, sacks and fumbles — can quickly morph into more destructive conduct.

That’s what the league says it’s found.

Think about it.

Do you really want defensive players to put a bounty on the game’s top players, so that their #1 goal on any given play is to injure that player?

And please don’t make the “what about all the other teams that have done the same thing and haven’t been punished” argument.

We heard enough of that in response to those caught using performance enhancing drugs.

You punish the people you catch breaking rules. When you have evidence that students cheated on an exam, you don’t excuse the behavior just because you may not be able to identify every student who cheated.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has to mete out stiff penalties in this case.

The Saints must be held accountable for the team’s failure to stop the practice and the coaches involved should be heavily penalized.

Former Saints Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams, now with the St. Louis Rams, was smart to apologize, but that should not absolve him from a suspension.

The players knew they were breaking the rules. They too, should be held accountable.

The sanctions may be a combination of fines, suspensions and the loss of draft picks, but it must be made clear that this was a serious offense and that this behavior will not be tolerated.

The deliberate attempt to injure is destructive conduct. The failure to root it out compromises a sport.

It’s not just player safety that’s at stake.

Clean competition and an even playing field are vital to a sport.

Integrity is at stake.

No sport can exist without it.

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