The National Football League’s New Orleans Saints are alleged to have instituted a bounty system whereby its defensive players would receive bonuses for knocking opposing players out of the game. 

Moralizing sports journalists are going so far as to ponder whether the Saints players participating in the bounty system should go to jail for assault and battery if the allegations are proved true. 

They know neither the game nor the law. 

The game of football is interesting and popular because it is effectively mock hand-to-hand combat.  It is the American equivalent of the ancient Roman gladiatorial games, but without the requirement of death for the losers.  It allows fans to vicariously enjoy, and for players to actually do, what would land them in jail off the field. 

Is the game brutal?  You bet.  I remember in high school, when playing our arch-rival for homecoming, a team that happened to have an all-state defensive lineman I was tasked with blocking (I was a decidedly non-all-state offensive guard), coach put in a play specially designed to slow him down.  It involved the tight end coming across the line in motion to end behind me just as the ball was snapped.  I would stand the all-stater up, and the tight-end would then obliterate him.  Dave was the tight end, and the very first time we ran the play, the all-stater ended up on the ground, writhing in pain at the blow to the ribs Dave had delivered.  We just cackled in the huddle, watching him roll around on the ground.  We didn’t get a bounty for it (except the satisfaction), but we knocked the all-stater and two of his back-ups out of the game that night.  It was all perfectly within the rules of the game.  I’ll never forget how Dave grinned each time I’d meet him back at the huddle after he’d pummeled another defensive tackle to the ground.   But they got payback later on, when I was knocked out of the game by a kick in the eye after snapping for an extra point (I was also the long-snapper).  As soon as I raised my head from the snap, one of their players who was trying to jump the line and block the kick slammed his cleated foot through my facemask.  My eye was swollen shut by the time my buddies showed me the way to the sideline, whispering in my ear, “C’mon Red, don’t let ‘em know you’re hurt.”  Was it brutal?  Yes.  Was it just a part of the game?  Yep, that too.

When we played another rival that had an all-state kicker, coach directed me to “break his fucking leg” after the opening kick-off.  I was the center on the kick-return team, which normally meant retreating about twenty yards after the ball was kicked in order to turn up field and find somebody to block.  Instead, for this game, I was to sprint to the kicker and knock his lights out.  Which I did.  I didn’t break his leg, and coach knew I wouldn’t.  It wasn’t for lack of trying, but because it’s almost impossible to hit anyone so hard and in the right spot to intentionally break much of anything.  That’s what all the pads are for—they make delivering and receiving hits a bit more formalized and difficult on both ends.  Football is mock hand to hand combat, but without weapons, except the helmet, and the helmet is a rather blunt instrument, to say the least.  But I did hit the guy hard enough on the first kick-off until he sprinted to the sidelines right after the kick on each succeeding one.

Everyone that has played football fully well knows that playing the game as it’s intended to be played involves trying to hit hard enough to inflict pain and injury.  Players have to have a killer mindset, dedicated to furious, but directed and controlled, violence.  I loved the game for that very reason.   A hundred or so years of panty-waist living in an effeminate society has hardly been long enough to breed away the human male’s capacity for violence.  For me, football allowed the expression of innate attributes that society conspires to completely suppress.  I know I speak for more than just me when I say there is nothing more thrilling than slobber-knocking an opponent to the ground.  It allows expression of a deeply-held visceral impulse that the violence of the ages has designed in me and my mates, while rarely doing any permanent, or even temporary, harm.

The bounty system alleged to have operated with the Saints only formalizes, a bit, what every football player already informally knows—that trying to inflict pain and injury on the opponent is part and parcel of football, especially on the defensive side of the ball.  Defenses are tasked with raising the cost to the offense of reaching the endzone.  One way of doing so is brutal, bone-crunching play.  As my experience shows, brutality is not the sole purview of defenders, but is just a preferred method of slowing down an offense by making it painful to proceed.  On both sides of the ball, hitting hard enough to inflict pain and injury is not the end, but a means to the end, of winning the game.  And it all takes place within the context of the game, under the watchful eye of multitudinous referees carefully looking for rules violations, almost all of which are directed at limiting the brutality that can be employed.  Why couldn’t I just hold the kicker down and break his leg, assuming I were even physically capable of such a feat?  Because it would have cost a penalty and an expulsion, and in high school sports, very likely a suspension for more than a few games, and maybe even some penalties for the team, and maybe even the school, a result which would obtain in pretty much every league, from the NFL down to Pop Warner.  Violence is an inherent part of the game, but its type and character is tightly controlled by the rules under which it is played, and violations of those rules can yield harsh punishments. 

The notion that hitting someone in football, or even that rewarding the rare hit that accomplishes the end of pain and injury to which it is directed, should induce some sort of legal liability, either civil or criminal, is absurd on its face, even more ridiculous than believing, for example, that McDonald’s should pay for the medical bills of someone who spills coffee in their lap.  Every player understands and assumes the risk of injury when they lace up the cleats and step on the field, in the same manner that a coffee drinker assumes the risk of spilling hot coffee in their lap in the drive-through.   Players even understand that not all hits will be in accordance with what’s allowed by the rules.  Yet an analysis of the Saints’ last two seasons (by the Wall Street Journal) revealed only a handful of hits that knocked people out of a game, and of those, even fewer that were penalized by the referees.

The Saints’ bounty system as alleged provided for rewards in the $1,000-$2,000 range for hits, depending on whether the player had to leave the game permanently or only temporarily.  This is chump change for athletes earning multiples of seven-figure incomes.  They were playing what amounted to penny-ante poker.  There is no way it motivated them to do something they weren’t already motivated to do.  It was just a side bet, probably more directed at just spicing up the routine of relentless pounding football players inflict and must endure.

There are two factors driving the emotional outcry by the non-playing public.  The first is a profound naïvete regarding the brutality of the game, a sense that is inculcated by the NFL seeking to present the game as something other than what it is in order to expand popularity and viewership, all the while dancing along a razor’s edge to make sure it doesn’t so pacify the game as to irredeemably spoil its character as mock hand-to-hand combat.   The second is the generally effeminizing direction in which the whole of society is, and has been, heading for over a century.   Society simply doesn’t need testosterone-addled men anymore.  Football, while nothing more or less than entertainment, still is a place where an abundance of testosterone is rewarded rather than penalized.  The effete do not like this, and so snub their noses at football.  The NFL is stupid for trying to appease them.  There is a certain segment of society that wouldn’t like football even if the tackling was traded for flags. 

The only real weapon provided to the combatants is the helmet.  Elbows and forearms are puny against shoulder pads and rib protectors, but the helmet is an effective, if blunt, battering ram.  As the size and speed of the players has increased, helmet blows have become ever more punishing, even to the point of being dangerous, especially in the NFL where the players are the biggest and fastest.  There is a relatively easy answer to the problem:  put padding on the outside, not just the inside, of the helmet.  The helmet evolved to protect a player’s head.  It was originally designed as a shield.  It became so effective as a shield that it developed into a sword.  Blunt the edges of the sword by padding the hard outer shell and its usefulness as a weapon will be greatly impaired.  And doing so will alleviate the absurdity of punishing players for the act of playing the game.  There is something not quite right about the sport (at least so far as the NFL organizes its play) when a player can be fined, and even suspended, post-game for a play that wasn’t even penalized during the game. 

It is often said that sports builds character.  No.  Sports occasionally reveals character, and maybe sometimes conditions character, developing in the athlete a tolerance for pain that others might lack, but it can’t cut character from whole cloth.  But assuming that sports reveals character, what does this episode with the Saints say about the team?  I’d say about next to nothing.  It was a harmless game built around the expression of brutality that is already a vibrant part of the game. 

Does it say anything about the city of New Orleans?  While this may seem a fanciful question, sports franchises always like to pretend that they represent some expression of the greater good of the cities in which they play.  When the Saints, who have mostly been awful through the long course of their history in the NFL (the “Aints, as the city itself often called them), finally won the Super Bowl in 2009, it seemed everyone nauseatingly wanted to conflate the Saints victory in the Super Bowl with the revival of the city after Hurricane Katrina.  There could have been nothing further from the truth, but the idea that sports are a metaphor for life is a persistent one.  What in fact happened is the Saints hired a bright young coach (Sean Payton) and a quarterback with his same philosophy of play (Drew Brees) and built a talented team around that core that could win. 

Even Alabama’s victory in the BCS Championship this past year was conflated with the revival of Tuscaloosa after the devastating storms of the preceding April.   The Birmingham News went so far as to publish an anthology of the season titled Tragedy to Triumph, with tragedy as the tornadoes and triumph as the championship.  The two could hardly be less relatedThe team didn’t suffer any tragedy with the storms, and is only tangentially related to and representative of the town in which the university that owns it is situated.   Alabama didn’t win the BCS Championship as an expression of its character of overcoming meteorological adversity, or to give Tuscaloosans hope that they might overcome theirs.  It won because its players outplayed, and its coaches outcoached, LSU in the rematch.  Nothing of its victory was reported to have revivified any of the more than thirty people that died that day in Tuscaloosa, or the more than 250 that died statewide.

To be sure, it is more interesting when sports can be viewed as grand morality plays.  But they aren’t.  In many respects, sports are simply one means that have developed to deal with a surfeit of testosterone the post-industrial world no longer needs (and please, don’t howl that women play sports, too.  Indeed they do, but not capably so against men.  And neither golf nor car racing are sports).  The human animal, particularly of the male variety, needs to run, jump, punch, kick, hit, catch, fight, claw, etc.  It’s in his blood.  Sports provide an outlet for the violent physicality for which he was designed.  But they are just entertainment.  They aren’t metaphors for anything. 

So just dispense with the silly indignation at the Saints’ alleged bounty system.  Not only was it not illegal, nor even immoral, it wasn’t really indicative of anything except boys being boys, and the NFL is one remaining bastion where such a thing should be allowed, and even encouraged, lest we all become manty-wearing, man-purse toting, metrosexuals.

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