For what now seems like an eternity, the New Orleans Saints have been rocked by scandal and suspensions for what can only be deemed as “Bountygate.”
As an NFL investigation revealed, the New Orleans Saints implemented a bounty system under defensive coordinator Gregg Williams from 2009 to 2011 in which defensive players were given bonuses from a “slush fund” for carrying out vicious hits that disabled key players on their opponent’s offense — most notably Brett Favre in the 2009 NFC Championship game.
While the repercussions have been severe for Williams (suspended indefinitely), head coach Sean Payton (one year), Saints’ general manager Mickey Loomis (eight games), linebacker Jonathan Vilma (one year) and former defensive tackle and current Green Bay Packer Anthony Hargrove (eight games), the darker side of the NFL has been thrust — or rather shoved — under the public’s nose for examination.
The major dilemma of “Bountygate” still lies in a perpetual “blame game” as the question of who lies mainly at fault in this scandal remains largely up for debate. Is it the coaches, who set up the system, the players, who carried out the orders of these coaches, or the culture of the league and sport as a whole?
Let’s start with Vilma, who has been identified by the NFL investigation as the ringleader among the players in the bounty scandal. Although he helped carry out the illegal hits physically, he and every other Saints’ player were pawns in the grander scheme. If a game plan for football is like a metaphorical game of chess against your opponent, then the players are the pieces, following the commands of the coaches and carrying out plays and tactics they have been taught.
Like a soldier trained to carry out a mission by his superiors, players like Vilma are in no position to fundamentally challenge the authority of a bounty system like Williams’. Loyalty is not just part of the game as a player, but an inseparable and necessary trait to keep your spot as a starter and on the team. Challenging the authority of a coach is essentially a way to lose your job and chance to make millions, as players have been cut for failing to listen adequately or effectively to coaches in the past.
Not to say what Vilma did was right, but the real villains in this story are the men in power. If the coaches don’t have absolute control over a team, chaos reigns. But the coaches of the Saints, in this instance, manipulated their control over the Saints’ players to carry out unethical actions, which in itself is a crime in terms of rule violations and misuse of power. While many would say violence and players attempting to injure opponents are traditions rooted firmly in football since its creation, it makes little difference. Commanding and paying players to purposefully disable opponents is a despicable and unprofessional action.
Payton, as the head coach and prime authority of the Saints’ locker room, was supposed to monitor and prevent instances like this from occurring. Instead, he allowed this system to go unchecked for years. For men like Payton and Loomis, who had the authority to stop Williams’ system, standing by and allowing the bounty system to exist is far worse than players like Vilma who have little to no power in stopping something implemented by a defensive coordinator.
This follower-leader debate is nothing new in instances of crime. Human beings have followed men to much more reprehensible acts throughout history, citing later they only did so because they were following commands from their leaders and risked punishment if they did otherwise. But does that make them excusable for their actions?
This issue stretches further than a single franchise in New Orleans. The entire NFL for decades has experienced shady dealings with bounties and locker room agreements. Just the other day, former Minnesota Viking great Cris Carter admitted he put financial stipulations on defensive players to help protect himself from being injured, referring to a particular nasty exchange with former Denver Bronco Bill Romanowski when the linebacker told Carter he planned on ending his career.
Although Carter later went on to claim the sole purpose of these bounties was for his protection and reasons other than injuring or maiming opponents, the fact remains that the NFL is a league deeply embedded with sinister hits.
And that’s where the root of the problem lies for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the security of the NFL. If the culture of the sport is rooted in unnecessary practices like bounties and cheap hits, there may be a day when football ceases to exist as a legal sport. After all, with the developing studies on concussions and its effects on former athletes, protecting football players from dangerous hits with long-term health effects is essential in ensuring the long-term security of the game.
Because of those reasons, Goodell’s punishments are just. With high-profile deaths and suicides of former players because of speculated issues relating to injuries sustained during their NFL careers, a new emphasis must be placed on protecting players from questionable hits, especially those to the head. However, Goodell’s suspensions do not justly reflect who is at fault in Bountygate. While Williams received exactly what he deserved with an indefinite ban, men of power like Payton and Loomis — who allowed this unethical system to exist on their watch when they had the power to stop it — deserve a stronger punishment than a player like Vilma.
Williams was once quoted as telling his players before a game against San Francisco, “Kill the head and the body will die,” referring to injuring the heads of 49ers Frank Gore and Alex Smith. The same goes for destroying the culture of bounties in the NFL. By banning the man who enacted this bounty system, Goodell hopes players and coaches throughout the league will understand this is no longer a league in which anything is fair in the name of competition.
But are the punishments enough that the body of football’s violent sub-culture on defense will die? Only time will tell, but it’s a step in the right direction for changing the NFL into a cleaner, safer league.
This is Nick’s final column of the semester, but don’t worry, he’ll be back next year as a super-senior to continue his life’s pursuit of becoming an average, semi-respectable sports writer. Have thoughts on the column? Email him at email@example.com.