If (mostly) very large men get paid pots of money to slam into each other and knock each other to the ground, is it really so awful that some were allegedly paid bounties to take an opposing player out of the game with a particularly hard hit?
Yes. It is disgraceful. It crosses the line, turning the aggressive sport of professional football into a criminal enterprise, a sort of modern gladiator fight. And if Gregg Williams is found guilty by the NFL for paying such premiums for game-ending or career-ending inflictions of injury, he should be banned from coaching pro ball.
Williams, the defensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams, has been accused of paying cash bonuses to players when he was on the coaching staff of the New Orleans Saints. Questions are also being raised about whether Williams made such payments when he was coaching for the Washington Redskins and the Buffalo Bills.
There are serious contractual and legal issues involved. If players were paid extra to cause physical harm to opposing players, that violates the salary cap. And in hockey, players can be prosecuted for causing serious physical harm to other skaters. What would prevent someone sidelined by a bounty-receiving player to do the same?
But those matters are insignificant compared to the violation of any ethical and human standards. It's just disgusting to reward players financially for deliberately hurting another player. The league recently has started to pay long-overdue attention to the concussions and other serious bodily injuries suffered by NFL players, and the Williams scandal makes a mockery of it. Football is a great sport, an exciting competition characterized not just by "great hits," but by stunning long passes and breakaway runs. Perhaps certain trends have encouraged more aggressive and physical behavior, whether it's medicine or state-of-the-art padding that allows players to take a harder hit. But paying players to hurt others? It's one step above the old Roman Colosseum games in ancient times.
Former Bills safety Coy Wire explained to the Buffalo News how Williams's bounty-paying (which Wire told the paper was happening in Buffalo, although Wire said he did not himself get paid for hard hits) affected the game and the sports atmosphere:
"What Williams did was wrong, and I know that now," Wire said. "My sense of normalcy was warped. I thought what I was doing was right."
Wire ended the career of Detroit Lions running back James Stewart with a clean hit in a 2003 preseason game. Wire had trouble justifying the idea of waylaying a man's livelihood against the rousing praise heaped upon him by teammates and coaches.
"Now, it's unthinkable that was my reality," Wire said. "I shattered James Stewart's shoulder, and he never played again. I was showered with praise for that. It's a shame that's how it was. Now I see how wrong that was."
Fining Williams or the team is a useless and stunningly inadequate punishment. Imposing financial penalties only underscores the twisted connection between money and violence. Teams would just build it into their business models.
If the allegations are true, Williams should not be allowed to coach again. Saints coach Sean Payton, who reportedly did nothing to stop it, should be punished as well. We can't take the aggression out of football. But we can draw the line at turning the sport into a criminal competition.