- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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Coy Wire can't lie. He didn't pretend to be some reluctant bounty hunter at the start of his nine-season NFL career with the Buffalo Bills and Atlanta Falcons. He played safety, linebacker and special teams ace, three of the most headhunting positions in the game. So when it comes to the violence or take-no-prisoners ethos of the sport, it's impossible to accuse him of being naive.
Still, after the NFL bounty scandal broke last weekend involving Gregg Williams, his former Bills coach, Wire found himself embarking on an unsuccessful Internet search to find a phone number or other contact information for former Detroit Lions running back James Stewart. Wire has something he wants to tell Stewart that's been nine years coming. And what he'd like to say to him perfectly slices through all the clutter and noise and emotional debates that are ricocheting around the bounty topic, and gets straight to the heart of what the modern NFL is -- and what it should be.
"The NFL is undergoing an evolution now," Wire says.
And his sharpest, truest observation is this: "This can actually be a great moment for us as a league."
Back in 2003, Wire, then a second-year safety for the Bills, collided with Stewart at the line of scrimmage on a first-quarter running play in a preseason game. Wire says the Bills' "pay-for-plays" system, which Bills defensive players administered themselves with Williams' knowledge, was already in effect when he joined the club as a third-round pick a year earlier, and though no payouts were made for this particular game since it was just an exhibition, the mindset was still in effect.
A news account of that game reported that after Wire's initial hit, "Stewart was dragged down from behind by three more defenders [and] lay on the field for several minutes as Lions trainers tended to his right shoulder. He then gingerly held out his hurt arm as he was led off the field."
It turned out to be the last carry of Stewart's career.
He had a separated shoulder. He never played again.
What bothers Wire to this day wasn't the collision with Stewart itself -- "It was a clean, hard hit, and that's just football," Wire insists. What he wonders about is why he didn't think to question how exhilarated he felt about seeing Stewart wobble off at the time.
The answers Wire has arrived at since aren't all very nice or flattering. But they are brutally honest. And admitting them takes the sort of critical self-analysis that goes to the heart of what's so wrong -- and don't kid yourself, changeable -- about the NFL ethos that led to the underground bonus program Williams went on to run himself, first in Washington and then New Orleans before becoming St. Louis' defensive coordinator this winter.
Williams' bounty payments to Saints players admittedly went beyond the usual $500 or $1,000 handshakes for achievements like forced fumbles, interceptions and sacks. He also paid bounties for "kill shots" that were not just meant to sideline or injure opposing players; sometimes, such shots actually did.
Wire's retort to the "So What?" crowd that's weighed in on the bounty scandal since -- all the people griping that snitches are the "real problem," the folks rolling their eyes or shouting it's hypocritical to deny violence and pain are parts of the sport -- is simple: If no civilized society tolerates that kind of acknowledged, premeditated intent to injure, how can anyone justify allowing the NFL to be different?
"What we condone, we accept. And if we know we can do something to improve the health and safety of someone or prevent people from dying young, then we must do it -- we must," Wire says. "The average life expectancy of an NFL player is 20 years less than the average American. Think of how much we've learned about brain trauma just in the last few years. This is the new reality of the game of football. Things may have been a certain way in the past. That's fine. You can even call 'em the good old days if you want. But we have to make even more changes to protect players. Not less."
Wire says he feels "horribly" that Williams is "taking the rap for a whole league and being painted in the wrong light here."
Why? "Because he's not 'the' mastermind behind some evil empire," Wire answers. "I had the privilege of playing for Gregg Williams, and he was one of the best motivators and teachers I ever played for. He's a good man. If anything, I respect Gregg Williams even more now for standing up and admitting his faults and taking ownership of the mistakes that he made.
"And you know why? Because when I look back, any one of us in that [defensive squad meeting] room -- the players, the other coaches -- could have stepped up and said, 'Wait a minute. This is wrong. This is over the line. This has to stop.' And you know what? We didn't. We didn't. And the same thing happens all around the league."
The question of "why" is something else Wire has thought long and hard about. He says all he can do is look at his own evolution as a man even more than a player.
His thinking had already changed by the time he served as the Falcons' players rep his last two seasons in the NFL and sat on the executive committee that worked on the stricter safety and health issues that were put into the new labor agreement. He agrees with Roger Goodell's attempts to make the game safer.
Wire was also a sociology major at Stanford. Since then he's studied enough about philosophy and psychology to write a book that's due to be released next month, and he's embarked on a public speaking career now that he retired from the NFL last summer.
He says the bounty scandal brought one term leaping back to mind.
"This has been a classic case of groupthink," Wire says. "It's a real psychological phenomenon, a pack mentality, the same sort of thing that happens [in extreme] in cults. A group of people will come together and do bad, irrational things that, as individuals, they would step back and assess as being bad or wrong. People affected by groupthink ignore alternatives and tend not to take rational action. And to me, that's what happens in the NFL.
"We know the Saints aren't the only place in the NFL where guys are so caught up in the money, so hungry for that success and desire to succeed that, before they know it, it went too far. Who knows how rampant it has been? But it was there. It happens. And the good thing is, this is a moment where we can say, 'You know what? We messed up. Let's not let this ever happen again.'"
To do anything less would be unconscionable.
This is not about making football unrecognizable from its previous incarnations. Nor is it pretending injury isn't an inextricable part of the game. Wire correctly maintains there is a middle ground where the game can "still have hits, still be violent and intense, still be the most exciting game on the planet" without players surrendering to some barbaric notions of what kind of behavior or dark intentions are inevitable.
"What we can't condone --- player to player, man to man -- is saying it's OK to go out and intentionally injure your fellow NFL brethren," Wire says. "Football is a gladiator sport, but we're not Romans in some ancient coliseum. There are rules."
That's the sort of reform and intentions that should be encouraged.
And if or when Wire speaks to Stewart, this is what he wants to say: "I would tell him, 'I know it was a clean hit that day. But I just want you to know that I acknowledge the fact that you weren't able to play football anymore -- and that hurts me, too, because for a brief moment in my life, I was excited that that happened.
"And for that I'm ashamed."
The old NFL might've rejected an ethos like that.
But Wire is right: The new and evolving NFL no longer can.
7hAdam Lewis, Special to ESPN.com
21hPat McManamon and Jeremy Fowler