Commentary

Bounties reinforce football's flaws

More evidence that the culture of the game is out of step with society's standards

Originally Published: March 8, 2012
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

On Oct. 8, 2006, in the third quarter of a game between the New York Giants and the Washington Redskins, the Giants' Brandon Jacobs, a 6-foot-4, 265-pound running back, took a handoff from Eli Manning and headed upfield, where 6-foot-3, 255-pound Redskins linebacker Marcus Washington was waiting.

The collision was brutal. Jacobs barreled helmet-first into Washington's chest, bowling the linebacker to the ground. Washington, though, held on, made the tackle and, after the whistle, rose to one knee and vomited through his face mask.

Later, in the locker room, I asked Washington about the play. He smiled ruefully and said, "That's the game. When those Riddells start popping, you're playing football. I mean, this ain't golf."

[+] EnlargeColt McCoy
Charles LeClaire/US PresswireScenes such as this one -- Colt McCoy after a helmet-to-helmet hit -- make the game's violence more visible.

During the following weeks, the Redskins -- coached by Joe Gibbs, with Gregg Williams as his defensive coordinator -- descended from a surprise playoff team the season before to a 10-loss club. The reason, according to many around the team, was a lack of physicality. If it wasn't Chris Samuels or Randy Thomas expressing frustration that the offense wasn't running the ball hard enough, it was Shawn Springs, Andre Carter or Shawn Taylor saying the defense wasn't hitting hard enough. I remember Williams telling me one day, "We're not breaking enough wills. Teams believe they can beat us for 60 minutes. That starts with being physical. You have to hit them hard enough so they reach about where they stop believing."

Now the NFL reports it has essentially razed a small forest to assemble an 18,000-page document chronicling rewards for players who targeted the most dangerous players on opposing teams. And, like concussions and brain injuries, shortened careers and life spans, the bounty issue isn't much ado about nothing. It's much ado about football.

If the NFL is upset with Williams, it is because he engaged in a bounty system that conflicts with its delusional image of itself and its game. And that revelation exposes the sport to its greatest vulnerability: the reality of its violence in a society that is moving away from the way football is and has always been played.

Twenty-three years ago, Buddy Ryan's "Bounty Bowl" with the Dallas Cowboys, while hyped as news, was accepted as men being men in a brutal game. Today, with the backdrop of concussions and enhanced safety rules, the bounty revelations will push football farther away from its roots and closer to more radical changes.

The league must now deal publicly with the unglamorous underbelly of the game, the real game that cannot be obscured by opulent halftime shows and $2 million ad buys, with what everyone on the inside has long known. The public now sees the old reality of football's brutality, already on trial during this concussion era, with a clear articulation of the policy on unsportsmanlike conduct.

What the NFL is facing is nothing more complicated than itself, with its grossly inappropriate pseudo-military culture and million-dollar violence. This is the game. Commissioner Roger Goodell must know that the best way for his blood sport to survive is to sell a product that offers the illusion of football without pain, football without blood, football without anger. The obvious strategy is to convince the fan base that taking the toughness out of the toughest players -- or taking them out of the game completely - doesn't decrease a team's chance of winning.

[+] EnlargeSaints Defense
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireTo the public, the bounty issue muddies the line between playing good defense and football's brutality.

A year before the Washington-Jacobs collision, the Redskins played at Seattle in the postseason. That was the wonder year of Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander. He attended Alabama and was teammates with Cornelius Griffin, the Redskins defensive tackle. I asked Griffin about Alexander, and he told me that the key to stopping him was "to hit him first" and to "hit him constantly" because Alexander was a finesse back and hitting him would "break him."

Perhaps Griffin was simply articulating good, strong, football tactics, or maybe there was something behind it like a bounty system similar to the one Williams was found to have instituted later in New Orleans. Maybe it was both. Whatever the case, Griffin was explaining how to play football.

Where Williams has overstepped is in codifying the policy, as preliminary reports suggest he may have done in Buffalo, Tennessee, Washington and New Orleans. Hard policy with hard dollars creates hard evidence, making it impossible for the suits in the offices who manage the real revenue for the league to maintain the illusion.

Regardless of what it's called, the concept of bounties exists throughout sports. One person's "bounty" is another person's "incentive," which is another person's "toughness." In hockey, as in baseball and football, there are codes by which the game polices itself de facto. When a running back is carving up a team, coaches, players, writers and fans look for someone on the defense to "put a hat on that guy" with a hard, legal hit that might make him think twice and might even put him on the sideline.

The articulation and implementation of a formal policy to achieve that end is both directly and indirectly reinforced by the culture, even if that same culture abhors the thought of purposely injuring a player. The networks fighting for ratings, coaches fighting for their team and agents fighting for more money for their clients highlight big defensive hits and big defensive plays that turn around games, turn around seasons, never mind the secondary reality that a player is writhing in agony on the ground while everyone celebrates is only two clicks above barbaric. With the understanding that people watch football for big hits, ESPN glamorized them with a segment called "Jacked Up!" until concern about that reality intervened and the segment was dropped.

Before he sends a message to his sponsors (or to members of Congress readying themselves for the day a constituent wants football abolished because his son was paralyzed due to a "bounty hit") by dropping Williams down a deep hole as a symbolic sacrifice, Goodell should go down to Cherry Hill, N.J., and watch some of the NFL Films library. He could see footage of Fred "The Hammer" Williamson, who made a career of all but ripping opponents' heads off. In one particular clip, the tables are turned, and Williamson is the one on the ground, a twisted wreck. The opposite sideline, wired for sound, hoots and hollers in glee. "Oooh! Is that the Hammer? We got the Hammer!"

That is the game.

If Goodell's issue really is the violence, he wouldn't be the commissioner. He wouldn't advocate for an additional two regular-season games, up to 18 from 16.

[+] EnlargeEli Manning
AP Photo/Chris GardnerEli Manning bore the full brunt of Gregg Williams' defense in this 2006 game against the Redskins.

But it isn't. His issue is the cosmetics of decorum. Coming off a season in which Ndamukong Suh stomped an opponent after the whistle on national television, Goodell knows his game is reaching the outer boundaries of accepted aggression. The real issue is not the unsportsmanlike nature of injuring players for money -- that already happens starting with the opening kickoff -- but injuring players for more money.

Yet, incentive is the natural order of this life, especially in the peer-pressured, testosterone-laden environment of a film session. Teams give out game balls for big plays and incentives for reaching milestones in yardage, touchdowns and interceptions - just as third-graders receive stars for spelling all of their words right, parents tell their kids they can go to Disneyland if they get a good report card, and college players get stickers on their helmets for positive plays that help the team. Putting a lick on a back or a receiver who has been running wild certainly qualifies. It only stands to reason that teams encourage their defensive players to be tougher, more physical, to make the star quarterback think twice before he drops back in the pocket against them the next time.

Imagine, for example, being in the Washington film room after the Patriots creamed the Redskins 52-7 in 2007. Imagine having to watch from left angle to right, from end zone camera to zoom to embarrassing freeze-frame, getting the absolute crap kicked out of you by everyone on New England's offense from Moss to Brady to Welker to Maroney to Stallworth.

Gregg Williams didn't cheat. His teams have not been routinely flagged for being the dirtiest in the NFL. His teams haven't paid the most fines in the league. Targeting players for money is tacky and classless, but it isn't fundamentally different than targeting them by instructing a defender to key on a dangerous opponent. What Williams will pay for over the coming weeks is providing a glimpse into a clubhouse matter that was intended to stay private. His biggest crime was putting into words, into policy, what happens on the field every day.

The real questions are about an NFL under assault for its lack of player safety, its games' potential for head trauma and now its cultural violence. Goodell and his office must determine whether it believes football can survive in its current form, a brutal game played by physical men -- or whether the bounty expose is another step toward the inevitable truth that today's football is on the wrong side of where society is heading.