Huge NFL news today! Gigantic news! You probably haven’t heard any of it yet because it was all so quietly reported, so here’s the first of two big news items: Sean Payton, head coach of the New Orleans Saints, has been suspended for the 2012 season due to the whole “bounty” controversy.
I never actually got around to writing about it, but the whole bounty thing was an absurdly overblown story. I can understand that it is bad for players to be offered cash incentives to injure other players. I can understand that it is even worse when it becomes an institutionalized process, whereby the defensive coordinator (with the knowledge of Payton and the team’s general manager) is the one setting it up and orchestrating things.
But, ultimately, the NFL is coming down hard for the same reason the media decried this whole thing when the news broke: to appear like they care about violence in football. Football is an inherently violent sport. When football players play defense, even if they aren’t outwardly trying to knock another player out of a game, they are trying to hit another player hard enough to do some kind of damage. The NFL isn’t touch football or flag football. It is tackle football, played by gigantic men who are among the most gifted and oversized athletes on the planet. And when it comes to a playoff game, if your team is facing elimination or advancement, what defender wouldn’t be happy to take out the other team’s star player? If you’re playing the Patriots and you can hit Tom Brady so hard he has to stop playing, that increases your odds of winning. That’s simply the way of the game.
So I think the NFL’s penalty is wildly unfair. Fining them and taking away draft picks makes sense, because they do need to be punished; even if I think the violence is part of football and the bounty system didn’t deviate that wildly from the way the game is played, you do still need to send a message to teams saying that these things shouldn’t be tolerated on an institutional level.
Ultimately, compare this to the Patriots videotaping scandal from 2007. The Saints didn’t gain any real competitive advantage on the field; they merely tried to inflict the maximum level of pain allowed by the game (which is a very high level of pain). The Patriots gained a tactical advantage that helped them figure out how to beat teams before playing. One is cheating, the other is just immoral. The NFL is trying to send a message about player safety here, but the only message I’m seeing is that if you cheat, you get fined and can keep on coaching, but if you do something that offends the morality of the NFL’s commissioner and the media, you get banned for a year.