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How Many Saints are Left in the NFL?

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Anyone with any interest in football and any access to news whatsover has surely heard about the Saints and the bounty system of financial rewards for damaging hits on opposing players. It is now known to have been supported and encouraged by the coaching staff.

The caption to the photo of Jonathan Vilma at left seems particularly ironic two and a half years later, after the news alleging his personal contribution of $10,000 to the bounty pool on Brett Favre. But tempting as it is to excoriate the Saints and assume they were an anomaly, one wonders how widespread the practice really is. From what I’ve read so far bounties appear to be an accepted practice among at least some of the players. From the standpoint of the league the $64,000,000 question, (or worse—liability suits can pile up in a hurry) is how many of the other teams encouraged it at the staff level.

Football, to state the obvious, is a game played at high speed by large, muscular and athletic men, and even with the best of intentions people are going to get hurt. But how good are the intentions? Obviously tempers flare from time to time during games—it seems it is hardly a proper game if the refs don’t have to break up a few disputes.

And it should surprise no one to find players seeking revenge in the heat of the moment for crippling hits from the opposite team. As a defensive player your job has just gotten more difficult when somebody takes out one of your important offensive players.

Trash talk of a certain type also seems to invite retaliation. Surely it isn’t coincidence when Rashard Mendenhall gets his shoulder blade broken in a Ravens game after running off his mouth the previous week.

One regrets such actions, though, even if you happen to consider the instincts as good in themselves. Which I don’t, personally. Although the actions may derive from good impulses (defense of one’s friends/clan, etc.) they are in my opinion inappropriate in the circumstances of a game, even if that game is (cue stirring music) football.

The stakes are just too high. You are looking at the possibility of permanently removing a players’ ability to continue to play, or perhaps even to have a reasonable quality of life. Surely winning isn’t worth that.

One can understand these sorts of emotions during a game. But bounties are different. Actions during the heat of battle are one thing. The calculated pooling of funds to reward hits on star players is quite another. The players being targeted may not even be men who have "offended" in the past—their sole crime is being good at their position.

Not only are bounties unattractive on a moral level, they smack of laziness. It is a lot easier as a general rule to defend the backup QB than the starting QB. It is easier to defend the WRs if the best one is gone. What’s the phrase? "Cut the head off the snake and the body dies." If this is what you feel you have to do to be competitive, maybe you should get your collective butts into the weight room a bit more frequently.

A bounty system among the players is bad enough. They at least will potentially suffer the consequences of possible retaliation in their turn. When the staff turns a blind eye to such practices, a new low is reached. And when the staff actively encourages this practice and even contributes to it or administers it, as allegedly happened in the Saints organization, there is apparently something deeply flawed in the system.

Others have written feelingly and more knowledgeably about how the league should handle the situation with the Saints. I won’t attempt to add to the litany. I’m more interested in how many other teams are going to get caught in the net.

This article compared the situation to Watergate. The more one looked into Watergate, the farther up the chain one could trace the fingerprints, until the investigation finally brought down the President of the United States. It will be interesting to see just how far the league allows this investigation to go and how many people will be implicated before they dole out a quick punishment to the Saints and hope the case is closed.

The Spygate scandal was a scandal not because the Patriots filmed practices—this was reportedly very common in the league at one time. The scandal consisted in their continuing to do so after being ordered to cease and desist. There’s an interesting correlation here, as apparently the Saints owner ordered the coaching staff to stop the practice of bounties.

This makes one wonder whether the league will find some way to punish the offending staff without damaging the owner. I would think it would be almost impossible to do so. Besides, if the owner knew this was occurring, ordered it to be stopped, and then didn’t make sure it actually stopped, perhaps he should suffer right along with the instigator(s.)

And then there is the stupid factor. The player safety initiatives resulting in rule changes, stricter enforcement of existing rules, and fines/suspensions for players not in considered to be in compliance with said rules makes the whole idea of specifically rewarding damaging hits to be all the more incomprehensible. The league was prepared to annoy the fans and anger the players to minimize damaging hits, or at least a certain sort of damaging hit. There are rules against hits targeting the knees of at least some vulnerable positions, as well as the headshot rules. How on earth could Gregg Williams et al not see it was bound to catch up with them sooner or later?

Roger Goodell has reportedly just issued a memo to the owners (check the sidebar of the linked article) to remind them of the league rules prohibiting such bounties, even among the players. Mr. Goodell also suggested they do a little digging in their own organizations.

As a Steeler fan I hope these practices have not been encouraged in the locker room. And I devoutly and more particularly hope they aren’t abetted by the staff if they do exist. One of the Tomlinisms we heard a lot this past season was "They don’t add style points." He was happy to "win ugly" if that’s what it took.

But there’s ugly, and there’s just plain wrong. I have no doubt the Steelers know the difference. So did Gregg Williams. His own statement admits "we knew it was wrong while we were doing it."

The question is, did the Steelers and the other teams not currently implicated in the scandal successfully avoid the temptation to fight fire with fire? I sincerely hope so. And I hope this practice will be thoroughly rooted out, however far it has reached. The cost of winning shouldn’t be the selling of one’s soul.