"$5,000 if you go up to Brett Favre during the game and kiss him on the lips..."
-- NPR Radio Host Peter Sagal's proposed "real" bounty for NFL players.
That quote, which Sagal said during this past week's Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me Quiz, revealed a lot not just about how NPR listeners view the NFL (the caller guessed it was "the Falcons' Bounty program," and Sagal went on to correct him that it was actually the Saints, "and before that the Redskins," demonstrating a level of sports inaccuracy this blog can only dream of) but also about how people view the NFL and Brett Favre.
There are two reactions to the NFL Bounty program, and you are required to take one of these sides:
(1) It's a horrible criminal action that is a black eye on the game and worthy of the fullest penalty of law, as expressed in the Op-Ed piece "Give The Ref A Gavel," written by a lawyer who was disappointed that Jim McMahon didn't sue Charles Martin back in the 1980s,Both of course, are somewhat inaccurate:
(2) It's just business as usual in the NFL where players are paid to try to hurt other players, which is the viewpoint the NPR panelists expressed on the show, pointing out that a player who got a bounty would make "$7,001,000" instead of seven million.
First, outside-of-rules hits can and should be punished and it's easy to think of an example that would prove that. Suppose that on the first snap of the Super Bowl, one of those Giants' defenders had stood up, pulled a gun, and shot Brady in the chest? Yes, the refs would expel the man from the game, and yes, the Giants would be penalized 15 yards, but would [or should] that be the end of the matter? No -- and so if extremely violent, unauthorized actions of that sort are punishable by criminal law, then extremely violent, unauthorized hits can be, too. Saying "it's part of the game" is an inaccurate and therefore inefffective way of saying "we don't want our courts to be involved in close judgment calls, and accordingly will only punish those actions that are so clearly outside the norm that they do not involve that sort of micromanagement."
Of course, if you believe that, then you are probably against "criminal negligence" charges of the sort that land people in criminal court merely for exceeding the speed limit, focusing not on the conduct involved so much as the results of that conduct.
After all, if you think courts aren't good at making close judgment calls... in sports... then why would you think they're any better in other mundane areas of life?
Secondly, players in the NFL are not paid to hurt other players, and why the NFL doesn't crack down on that sort of thinking I cannot imagine. The NFL routinely files suits and makes threats over people using the words "Super Bowl," but lets countless people go around claiming that the whole goal of players is to hurt other players? I'm as skeptical as the rest of you (more so) that the NFL is serious about protecting players; if it were, it would mandate anticoncussion helmets. But the more the NFL doesn't crack down on the "players are paid to hurt other players" talk, the more it seems that the NFL wants that reputation, which is an odd choice to make for a league that won't let Ochocinco wear a foam hat on the sidelines: "We're the league that sues unemployed people and wants you to focus on how everyone's trying to hurt everyone."
The real take -- the reasonable view point of Bountygate -- is that while the money may not be all that relevant to players who make 464,000 times the going bounty on another player, the threat of injury carries with it greater rewards for players whose coaches don't want to teach their players to operate in a sportsmanlike manner.
Forget, for a moment, the claim that Peyton Manning's current injuries stem from hits he received against the then-Gregg-Williams-coordinated Redskins, and the fact that Brett Favre has described the hits he took in the Saints-Vikings' NFC Championship game as among the worst in his career (Favre has subsequently said it was "just football.") Those are high-profile incidents but not the important part of the game.
The important part of the game is this: Players who threaten injury to other players force their opponents to be more concerned with physical safety than winning the game, and this type of behavior is routinely tolerated in the NFL.
Consider this quote:
Coach Gary Kubiak has been through this before.
When he was the quarterbacks coach at San Francisco, and Mike Shanahan was the offensive coordinator and they won their first Super Bowl ring together, their offensive linemen were accused of leg-whipping by opponents, usually defensive linemen and linebackers. They coached it and got away with it most of the time. The players were penalized and fined occasionally, but it never kept them from winning.
When Shanahan became Denver’s head coach, and he hired Kubiak as the offensive coordinator, they won two more Super Bowls together. Using a zone scheme that demanded the offensive linemen use cut blocks, they always ranked among the league leaders in rushing and victories.
Opponents, usually defensive linemen, accused the Broncos of dirty play. At times, the players were penalized and fined, but it didn’t stop them from winning. Cut-blocking was a big part of what they did on offense.
That is from an October 31, 2011 blog post noting that the Texans this past year were for the first time accused of using "cheap shots" and "dirty play." The columnist argued the Texans ought not to change their style at all -- and the Texans made the playoffs for the first time ever.
I don't know if the Texans were using illegal, or merely frowned-upon tactics. I do know that it's not the high-profile, ESPN-garnering, player-injuring shots on big names that the NFL needs to worry about -- those will take care of themselves, as they get TV time and as players protect their franchise quarterbacks.
It's the fact that a million little illegalities are routinely tolerated by guys like Shanahan and Kubiak, who continue to enjoy head-coaching jobs and who win (at least until they get to Washington) that the NFL should be concerned about. Like steroids in baseball, if the opponent's doing it, you've got to risk doing it, too, and so more cut-blocking (among other slightly-illicit tactics) gets used as the stakes get higher.
That is the story that ESPN and Yahoo! and Sports Illustrated didn't comment on, and that's the story the NFL hasn't bothered to take away. Most players aren't, probably, too motivated by an extra $1000 to hurt Brett Favre; but many players are being coached in illegal or unethical or dirty schemes that get big gains at the expense of cutting corners on the rules.
And, a final note: It had been, by my count, about 463 days and 12 hours since Brett Favre had last taken the field to play in a football game. During that time, Aaron Rodgers won a Super Bowl, Eli Manning won his second Super Bowl, Tom Brady played in his fifth Super Bowl, and Peyton Manning began his World Tour 2012.
But when push came to shove, who did NPR reach to as the biggest-name player to name-check in an NFL Joke?
THAT is how you tell who the greatest football player ever is: When he's a reference source for everything. If you want a basketball reference, you go Jordan. Golf, Tiger Woods. And for football, if you want a name everyone knows, you pick Brett Favre. Fans of other quarterbacks, call me when your guy becomes synonymous with the game.
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