There's no getting around the fact that football is a tough and often brutal sport. One need only look at a game or at clips to see up close the big hits, concussions, broken body parts and damage players inflict on themselves and each other.
But as details emerged about the bounty program the New Orleans Saints engaged in, and sports channels like ESPN ran clip after clip of nasty hits by Saints players on Brett Favre, Kurt Warner and other players, and the absolute exuberance of the punishers, I began to look at those hits in a different light.
I remember watching the 2009 NFC title game and felt much pity for Vikings quarterback Brett Favre. Saints defenders used him like a beating stick. They kicked him around good and proper with combinations of tough, late and questionable hits. At some point, he had to leave the field. Even then, I cussed at the television screen when I saw the egregious hits on an essentially defenseless player and I'm not even a Vikes fan.
Now I know why the defenders did what they did, and the cause for their glee.
I was sickened when I, along with rest of the public, learned that Saints' former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams funded and nurtured a bounty system which offered players money for jarring hits and to injure opposing players.
National Football League officials released a damning 50,000-page report on March 2 which presented evidence of the Saints complicity. Williams, Head Coach Sean Payton and GM Mickey Loomis offered mea culpas later, but it was too late to avoid the hammer.
Williams – who in the off-season accepted the defensive coordinator job with the St. Louis Rams – has been suspended indefinitely and Payton is out for a year without pay. Loomis will miss the first eight games of the season. The NFL also fined the team $500,000 and took away two second-round draft picks.
There seems to be no timetable for when Commissioner Roger Goodell announces the punishment to the 22 to 27 Saints players known to be actively involved in what has been dubbed "Sinnergate."
Between 2009 and 2011, these defensive players threw cash into a bounty pool, an act that violates NFL rules. Williams stood at the center of the program which offered players $1,500 to knock an opponent out of the game, and $1,000 if an adversary was "carted-off." During playoff games the reward doubled or sometimes tripled. The objective was to target the best players on opposing teams and take them out of the game.
Williams coached the Redskins from 2004-2007 but the league chose not to investigate whether he ran a bounty program while in Washington.
All of the principals involved, Williams, Payton and Loomis, apologized for their actions.
But even I was surprised by the severity of the punishment. I figured Williams would be taken to the woodshed but didn't think Payton would miss more than six or seven games. But given what the program was designed to do, the punishment is more than appropriate.
Goodell said after the sanctions were announced that the reason for the heavy hand was because Payton and company lied about their involvement. Payton reportedly told his assistants to make sure their stories meshed when NFL officials interviewed them.
Of course, there has been intense debate between NFL players past and present, sports gurus and fans about whether the money was bounty or bonus. Seems to me that if a coach chose to reward players for great or game-changing plays that would fall squarely into the bonus category. But to intentionally seek to harm fellow players for what amounts to a pittance compared to what most players make, that is a bounty.
To the relentlessly competitive players, the money served as added incentive to a population weaned on competition in an environment where testosterone rules.
Williams is known for producing aggressive, physical players as critical parts of hard-nosed defenses and he seemed to thrive on dismantling opposing receiving corps. That is his job.