Football's Failed Conscience: The NFL's Pay-Per-Injury 'Incentive' System

Posted by Megan Greenwell

Fumble

In the last major NFL scandal, "Spygate," the New England Patriots were fined for videotaping their opponents' signals on the sideline in an effort to win more games. Now that another scandal has rocked professional football, some commentators have drawn comparisons between the two. But "Bountygate" the subject of a 50,000-page investigative report released Friday, was a much more fundamental transgression—the New Orleans Saints weren't just flouting NFL rules, they created a program designed to seriously injure other people.

Under former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, the Saints had an incentive system that rewarded defensemen for hurting opposing players—including during the 2009 season, in which the team won a Super Bowl. Knocking someone out of the game earned a defenseman $1,000; getting him carted off the field pulled in $1,500. The head coach and general manager have admitted they knew about the plan, and they, plus Williams and the team itself, are likely to receive harsh punishments. (In a written apology, Williams called the scheme a "pay for performance" program, which is a little like saying snipers are rewarded for their accuracy.) The Saints weren't just breaking rules, they were putting lives in danger.

Yet the two uncreatively named scandals do have one major element in common: Only fools would believe that the wrongdoing in either case was limited to the team that got caught. By all accounts, spying and incentive systems are both widespread in the league, and both went casually ignored until the evidence in one case grew too strong for the league not to take action.

Players for other teams insist that they never had bounty systems, and they're appalled by the details of the Saints' scheme. Every close observer knows they're lying. Everyone has heard of similar programs, and nearly everyone has played for one. The NFL supports other players' denials—the entire league's reputation is on the line if the PR problem grows beyond one bad apple.

But even if few other teams were providing direct financial incentives for knockout hits, the big picture matters. Football—the sport itself—rewards sometimes-brutal violence. The Saints' bounties were never about the money. (After all, $1,000 from a communal pot is pocket change to a multimillionaire athlete.) The cash rewards were just one more incentive for players to do what they do on the field every day. College players rack up stickers on their helmets for important plays, including the biggest tackles. Sacks, arguably the most prestigious defensive statistic, are a measure of how many times a player flattens an unprotected quarterback. The problem of brain-damaged former players is reaching crisis proportions, and the league has done little about it. Let's not dupe ourselves into believing that attaching financial rewards to pre-existing priorities takes them from the realm of tough competition into monstrous territory.

And though NFL executives may not have known about the details of the bounty program, they are the ones to blame for letting it go on for so long. If the tackles that earned bonuses were dirty, the league is to blame for not handing down penalties that would have ensured they never happened again. And if they were by-the-book hits that still caused serious injuries, Williams' biggest offense was exposing a linebacker-sized hole in the rules. 

Several sports commentators, including Grantland's Charles P. Pierce, argue that football is morally unredeemable; that all the brain injuries and bounties have created a culture that's not worth saving. Everyone is "complicit in unprincipled barbarism in the guise of professional sport," Pierce writes.

But I wouldn't go that far. Clearly, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has lost the credibility needed to run the league. If he was serious about hanging his sport's ever-worsening image, he wouldn't stop at making sure Williams never coaches again—he'd step down himself and hand the reins over to someone with the knowledge and the moral fiber to make every change necessary to make the game fundamentally safe. That won't happen, though, at least until someone violates the rules and human decency in an even more egregious way. Until then, everyone in football who doesn't take a stand is an active participant in a moral failing of the first order.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user AJ Guel Photography