By Dan Frasier
Dear football players, past and present:
Stop digging! You have put the NFL and the future of the game we love in a giant hole, and you can’t seem to stop yourself from digging. We think it’s heinous and pervasive. We don’t believe you, and this sport will go away if it doesn’t change.
The recent revelations about the Saints bounty program and all the topics it has spawned has opened up a line of discussion that football didn’t want to have. Moreover, the people that are front and center in leading the NFL’s side of the discussion are ex-players who seem to have little to no understanding of the implications of their remarks. Worse yet, they don’t grasp the massive ramifications of these remarks. They are putting the sport at risk of becoming irrelevant or even extinct.
“It happens everywhere”
One of the first arguments that emerged after the Saints bounty scandal broke was a slow trickle of ex-players defending the Saints – or at least arguing the punishment was too severe by acknowledging that bounties go on everywhere and have forever. This is exactly the problem. Rogue teams and rogue coaches don’t call into question the viability of the league. Rather, they are problem children that need to be dealt with. The league has lived for years with the Raiders playing that role. However, the minute you take an isolated problem and insist that it’s not a problem because its systemic and pervasive, you have elevated the discussion to one that calls into question the entire system. And sadly, we believe you that the problem is systemic and pervasive.
Cris Carter recently indicated that defensive players trying to injure offensive players is so common that he felt compelled to take out bounties to protect himself from them. Commissioner Roger Goodell laid out the strong punishments that he did precisely because it happens everywhere. He needs it to stop. I’m not saying that the Saints were made an example of – that’s too easy. I am saying that the Saints were the opportunity for the commissioner to attempt to save a league that is rotting from the inside.
If bounties, especially ones for injuring players (and, essentially, all bounties are for injuring players, but we’ll get to that later) are systemically embedded in the league, then one of two things must happen: Either the league must extricate the systemic issue or the league must die because the cancer that is bounties can not persist, even at the expense of the game. The American Society today will not (overtly) tolerate grown men paying each other to intentionally maim other humans. We already don’t like seeing the crippled old men that are ex-players. It hurts us as fans. It makes us feel dirty. Moreover, the more we learn about brain injuries the less palatable any of this becomes.
“We never want to injure someone, just knock them out of the game”
First off, this is ridiculous. The minute the Saints were shown to put money on injuring an opposing player – extra cash for knock-outs and cart-offs – our long-suspected fears were confirmed: Players want to injure opponents. You could argue, “Well, only with clean hits,” but you can no longer say that there was no intent to injure. One does not collect cash and have what player-turned-broadcaster Mike Golic described as a “pedestal moment” in the team room for doing something they wish hadn’t happened.
If you want an eye opener, listen to “The Herd” podcast from May 9. In it, ex-NFL linebacker and reputed loose cannon Bill Romanowski gleefully describes “the best hit he ever made.” The outcome: Quarterback Kerry Collins was left bleeding from both ears, his nose and his mouth plus his helmet was cracked in three places and his face mask was mangled. There was no regret or remorse.
The argument that the injury is OK if the hit is clean, is likewise dangerous. That, too, makes the issue seem systemic. You’re saying, hits that damage other people, hits that cause lifelong problems to players, their families and loved ones, are fine if they are within the rules. That’s not the right approach, because they aren’t fine, period. If they are within the rules and one can’t modify the rules enough to get rid of them without destroying the game, then the game must be destroyed. Society will not tolerate people intentionally and permanently maiming colleagues.
I listened today to Golic and Romanowski separately discussing the intent of a defensive player. Romanowski said he didn’t want to injure someone, just knock him out of the game by ringing his bell. Golic said approximately the same thing, while adding that if an injury occurred in the course of a clean hit, so be it. Here is the problem, fellas: You can’t knock a guy out of the game without injuring him. Players play hurt, they play with cracked ribs and broken arms. There are only two ways to get them off the field. The first is to injure them in the traditional sense – break a leg, tear up a knee, dislocate a shoulder. So the minute you say, “I wanted to knock him out of the game,” we hear, “I wanted to injure him.”
The second way is one Romanowski named specifically: ringing a guy’s bell. In the past, that was thought to mean nothing. Now, we know that’s a concussion, and there can be long-term damage. You say, “I wanted to knock him out of the game by ringing his bell,” and we hear, “I want to cause his brain to slap the inside of his skull so hard it bruises and swells and leads to heinous problems later in life.” So you can’t win here, either. You want to injure other players. If that can’t be eliminated, the game eventually will be.
“It’s part of the game”
This is what it really boils down to: players intending to cause as much physical harm to opposing players as they can, long-term consequences be damned. It’s a part of the game, is the last argument. In fact, you aren’t saying it’s a part of the game, you are saying it is the game, that the game cannot be played without it. The problem is it must be.
For the better part of the history, societies have slowly weeded out sports and actions that were considered uncivilized or became unpalatable. I hear players call themselves gladiators, and there was a time when Rome could not have imagined a world where man weren’t cheered as they attempted to slay one another. Yet here we are without one gladiator battle for the last 1,700 years. A change in Roman society’s stomach for gruesome spectacle caused it to be phased out (mainly due to the growth of Christianity). Fox hunting has been banned in the UK, cock and dog fighting in the U.S. and so on. Just look at what happened to the popularity of the NBA when it was perceived by society to be manned by thugs – and that was minor compared to this.
You, the players, have told us that bounties and intentional injuries are in the game forever. Yet you don’t understand that the game is not forever. Society, lawyers and lawmakers will see to that. Already children are being discouraged from playing the game, not because the Saints had a bounty, but because you told us that there is not a game without bounties and bad intentions.
I love this game. I have watched as much college and pro football as I could since I was 3 years old. I don’t want it to go away. But it will. Boxing basically has. Imagine a world where the game would not start until everyone agreed in their heart of hearts that they wished to not injure opponents. Would that game ever be played? You’re telling us, no. I sure hope we don’t believe you about that, either.
About the author: Frasier works in finances – stocks and bonds and other important stuff. But he’s also the proud owner of a new Go Pro cam and made a pretty cool fishing video. Here’s the link.