Saints scandal threatens NFL integrity
Sinnersgate -- the Saints are no saints -- is worse than Spygate. Penalties must be much more harsh. Spygate was cheating, but caused no one harm. Sinnersgate is about being paid to cause injury, which takes a beautiful sport and makes it a low, filthy thing. Coaches talk endlessly about accountability. Gregg Williams, and any other coach or team official who abetted this deliberate debasement of the game, must be held accountable.
But don't NFL players know they are assuming risk? Of course. So let me tell you the worst part of this latest scandal to afflict football:
"I want someone hurt!" the high school coach was screaming. "I want some kid's mother crying in the stands because her son was carted off the field! Unless someone from that team is taken off injured in the second half, you will do punishment drills at 6 a.m. tomorrow!"
It was a few years ago, and I was standing in a high school football locker room in Montgomery County, Md., where I live. A favored school trailed a perennial loser at halftime, and the coach of the favored team was screaming -- I've deleted the many obscenities -- that he wanted his boys to intimidate the other team by injuring players.
The coach got his wish -- two opposition players were helped off in the second half, and his team rallied to victory. I was present as a guest, not as a reporter with notebook open, so there's a journalism-scruples question about naming the person. But his name isn't the point. The point is that NFL behavior does not stop at the NFL. The sense that it's OK to attempt to harm opposition players has been present in football for some time. The league is setting a terrible example for the overwhelming majority of football players who, unlike NFL players, never receive a dime from the sport.
In numbers terms, almost all football in the U.S. is played in high school. In any given year, there are about 2,000 players in the pros, about 60,000 in college, and about 1.1 million in high school. That's 550 prep players for each pro player. The vast majority of high school players don't receive any recruiting boost to college, and so never gain anything tangible from their football years.
But high school players are exposed to injuries that at minimum cause pain, expense and lost school time, and at worst may bring lifelong physical or mental debilitation. If the example being set by the NFL is one of a Super Bowl team acting gleeful over injured opponents, the worst harm isn't done to the pros. It is done at the high school level, where most of the sport is played, and where teens, and their coaches, emulate what they see in the NFL.
Each year, all NFL clubs receive a memo reminding them, "No bonus or award may directly or indirectly be offered, promised, announced or paid to a player for his or his team's performance against a particular team or opposing player or a particular group thereof. No bonuses or awards may be offered or paid for on field misconduct, for example, personal fouls to or injuries inflicted on opposing players."
That the Saints, and perhaps the Bills and Redskins, violated this clearly stated rule is bad enough. The deeply troubling offense of Sinnersgate is that the pros, who are looked up to by the young, are setting a terrible example for the high school players and coaches who emulate what they see on Sundays in the NFL. This is much worse than Spygate, bringing a new low to the National Football League. With football being hammered by scandal after scandal, where is the person of honor who will take a stand to return integrity to the sport?
Here are points to consider:
• There will always be injuries in football. But the intent of a football player never should be to injure; the intent should be to hit hard, legally. American law places considerable emphasis on intent. Intending to harm your opponent changes football from something manly and sportsmanlike into something brutish and disgusting.
There are risks in many forms of athletic endeavors. Divers risk concussions. Ballerinas who perform en pointe risk a range of orthopedic problems. But the intent of diving, or dancing, or many other endeavors, is not harm -- harm is an accident, or an occupational hazard. Hard-hitting football games need not involve harm. The Giants-Patriots Super Bowl was a fantastic contest, among the best football games ever, yet there was no dirty play by either team. Encouraging -- and rewarding -- dirty play changes the intent of football in a repulsive manner.
• Michael Vick went to prison for nearly two years for harming dogs, which he should not have done. Williams offered players money to harm people. And there was no misunderstanding: Williams told the league Friday, "We knew we were wrong while we were doing it.'' The situations are not directly analogous. But if prison was the fair punishment for causing harm to animals, the punishment Williams faces must be severe.
• Often, athletes are severely sanctioned for minor failings, while coaches and front-office personnel receive a slap on the wrist. A.J. Green, a player, was suspended by the NCAA for selling a jersey; compare to John Calipari, a coach, who has had two Final Four appearances vacated, yet never himself faced any penalty. Players often are told that being in the NFL is a privilege, not a right. Williams, along with Sean Payton and New Orleans general manager Mickey Loomis, who the NFL says did nothing to prevent the bounty system, thumbed their noses at NFL integrity. Why should they be allowed the privilege of remaining in the league?
• The Vikings-Saints NFC title game two years ago may have been where the Saints' deliberate rule-breaking was worst. Immediately after that game, I wrote, "Saints players came after [Brett] Favre so hard -- four times slamming him in ways that invited late-hit or roughing penalties, only two of which were called -- Williams [seems to have] told his charges something along the lines of, 'Pound Favre every time you can; we will take a couple of roughing flags in return for making an old guy worry about the next hit.'"
So did I do a good job by noting two years ago what is suddenly considered obvious? No, I did a terrible job. Yesterday I watched every New Orleans defensive snap of that game and found four, not two, instances in which unnecessary roughness should have been called against the Saints but was not. In retrospect, my column should have led with dirty play by the Saints. The four unnecessary roughness penalties that were not called:
• On the game's first snap, Favre handed off, turned away from the play and was hammered with a forearm to the chin by New Orleans linebacker Scott Fujita. Not only should a personal foul have been called -- Fujita should have been ejected on the game's first offensive snap. Instead, no call. Scott, were you paid for behaving like a street thug?
• At 6:14 of the first quarter, after Favre released a pass he was hit with a forearm to the chin by safety Roman Harper. No flag. Roman, were you paid for delivering that cheap shot?
• At 4:15 of the first quarter, Favre released a pass and then Darren Sharper slammed him in the chest with a foreman. No flag. Darren, were you paid for having low standards?
• At 13:29 of the second quarter, Favre released a pass and then was hurled to the ground by Bobby McCray. No flag. Bobby, were you paid for doing something you should be ashamed of?
Reviewing the tape, another aspect of the game jumped out at me that I missed when watching live, and so far as I can tell, all sportscasters and commentators missed, too. Beginning midway through the first quarter, whenever Favre handed off, he immediately ran backward 10 yards -- to get away from New Orleans late hits.
And the game tape contains a deeply disturbing comment made by Troy Aikman, color commentator for the broadcast. Back to that in a moment.
• Some are asking, if NFL players earn millions of dollars, how could a $1,000 bounty alter their behavior?
The bounty is not the whole issue -- the whole issue is pleasing the coach. Football players are elaborately conditioned to please coaches. They also know that if they want to get on the field, they must do what the coach instructs. Suppose that rather than cash, the reward for a "cart off" of an opposing player was a helmet decal of the sort seen in college and high school. Players still would have sought that.
Yet cash may matter. McCray of New Orleans delivered two flagrant, late, vicious hits to Favre, one that was flagged and one that was not. McCray is a journeyman who saw the field occasionally for several teams, then was out of the NFL at age 29. For a player who is not a star, picking up a couple of thousand in cash tax-free could be attractive, as could playoff bonuses. Each Saints player received $121,000 in NFL-sanctioned bonuses for winning the NFC title game and Super Bowl that year. Such bonuses could mean a lot to journeyman players.
• If you wish to review the Saints-Vikings championship game for yourself, good luck finding it on NFL Network. By coincidence, the league's TV outlet long had been scheduled to re-air the game on Monday afternoon. Viewers who tuned in and pressed the "info" key on their cable controls saw the game identified as Minnesota at New Orleans for the NFL title. But on the screen, a 20-year-old Cowboys game was airing.
Why did NFL Network yank the game from the air? NFL Network spokesperson Dennis Johnson told me, "NFL Network has extensively aired video clips of plays related to the Saints bounty investigation on NFL Total Access and during other news reports that are available on NFL.com. At this time, we decided not to air the complete three-hour game and will reschedule the program for a future date." He added that it was "an NFL Network programming decision," not a league directive.
Like any network, NFLN seeks eyeballs on its product. Right now there is a lot of interest in seeing what really happened in the Saints-Vikings game, compared to zero interest in Cowboys replays from the Jimmy Johnson era. Yet NFL Network pulled a hot product off the air, substituting a stone-cold product. Knuckleheaded business judgments do happen. But unless the people running NFL Network are knuckleheads, there may have been an agenda here. Perhaps the league did not want viewers to see for themselves how many vicious late hits went uncalled in the game that put the Saints into the Super Bowl.
• Gregg Williams has a classy first name, but may be a man of twisted values. Monday on NPR's "All Things Considered," Mike Pesca dug up audio of Williams speaking after the Saints' Super Bowl win. Williams says, "My whole life I've been trying to get people to play nastier." Can he seriously think lack of aggression is a problem in football? Williams also had this to say about his two sons' youth football days: "I told their little league coaches my kids will play fast, they're going to play nasty, they're going to play tough. Tell the rest of the babies around them to speed up."
What kind of a man boasts that his sons are nasty and denounces as "babies" 10-year-olds who want to participate in a sport safely? Williams needs to take a long look in the mirror -- and by his distorted values, he has forfeited any claim to a leadership role.
• Not just Williams, but all Saints players and coaches knew rules were being broken. NFL spokesperson Greg Aiello told me, "The prohibition of noncontract bonuses has been a formal part of the collective bargaining agreement since 1993. The ban on bounties predates that by a decade or more. It is the responsibility of teams, coaches and players to know the rules. Annual reminders are sent to teams about several important league policies over the course of a year, and the reminder about bans on bounties is one of them. It would not be plausible for anyone in our league to say, 'I didn't know about that rule.'"
• Other NFL defenses besides those run by Williams may have offered cash bounties or related rewards for vicious hits. But when is "other people are doing it" an excuse?
The young are taught that "other people are doing it" is never an excuse. An essential tenet of ethics is that the behavior of others does not justify one's own choices. One's own choices must be ethical regardless of what others do.
If other NFL teams rewarded vicious hits, this is totally, utterly irrelevant to the Saints' sins. Williams, and perhaps Payton and Loomis, knew they were breaking a clearly stated rule. They must be held accountable, regardless of what anyone else did.
• Monday on ESPN, Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young said rewarding illegal play "goes to the integrity of the game." Referring to the NFL safety crackdown that began in 2009, Young said, "under their noses, the Super Bowl champion had an institutionalized program to go hurt players." Young, who holds a law degree from BYU, supposed, "If I'm hurt against the Saints in the last couple of years, I'm suing the Saints." Young's comments begin at about six minutes here.
Whether paying players to injure others within the context of an obviously dangerous game can lead to prosecution, or is actionable in the civil sense, remains to be seen. State laws in states in which NFL games are played, and the exact wording of player contracts and collective bargaining agreements, may determine whether legal action occurs. If a lawsuit on this point succeeds, the sport of football will be in serious trouble.
• The Saints' Super Bowl win is now tainted. The Saints' feel-good story is over. Severe penalties must be handed out, while Saints supporters, who are not to blame, must accept that what their team seemed to accomplish is forever diminished. The larger question is whether Sinnersgate shows there is rot throughout the structure of America's most lucrative sport.
• Here is the disturbing comment made by Aikman during the Saints' NFC title win. Favre released the ball, then was body-slammed to the ground by Anthony Hargrove of New Orleans. A flag flew, for roughing the passer. "I think that's a bad call," Aikman said. "That's the way they teach Pop Warner kids."
That's the way they teach Pop Warner kids. Certainly Aikman is correct -- and that is why football must be reformed, from youth leagues up to the NFL, to eliminate the encouragement of vicious play. Spygate threatened the reputation of a coach. Sinnersgate threatens the entire sport.
In addition to writing Tuesday Morning Quarterback for Page 2, Gregg Easterbrook is the author of "Sonic Boom" and six other books. He writes a politics column for Reuters and is a contributing editor for The New Republic, The Atlantic Monthly and The Washington Monthly. His website can be found here, and you can follow TMQ on Twitter.