There's a reason why sports metaphors are used to describe developments in a war, and war metaphors are used to describe developments in sports. Turning a war into a game helps mitigate the very real and devastating violence in armed conflicts. And assigning war talk to games with controlled violence amps up the conflicts on the field or in an arena.
So it's no surprise that the suspensions of four NFL players accused of participating in a disgraceful "bounty" program were reversed. They were, after all, just following orders.
The alleged bounty program was conducted by the New Orleans Saints, which, the NFL concluded, indeed rewarded players with cash for hits that injured opposing players. And three of the four accused players, according to former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, indeed were guilty of poor conduct (a fourth was cleared of accusations he behaved in a manner detrimental to professional football, Tagliabue concluded in his investigation). But Tagliabue, who was appointed by sitting NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to hear the players' appeals, undid the players' suspensions and declined to fine them, saying that "this entire case has been contaminated by the coaches and others in the Saints organization." In other words, they were mere soldiers following the appalling directives of their leaders.
At first, the ruling feels emotionally unsatisfying—especially to those players who were targets of the Saints' bounty program. Particularly as we learn more about the long-term damage of concussions suffered by NFL players, it seems irresponsible not to clamp down on overly aggressive behavior on the field. And surely, there are cases where individual players in many sports should be held accountable (criminally, not with a two-minute penalty or insignificant fine) for crossing the line from sports competition to out-and-out assault.
But as in war, it's the leaders here who are primarily responsible for creating an environment in which such behavior is not only rewarded, but actively encouraged, putting players in a position where their jobs are at stake. Saints coach Sean Payton has been punished with a one-year suspension, and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has been suspended indefinitely. Even those sanctions might have been too lenient, and it's questionable that the bounty program was limited only to the Saints organization. But the principle is correct: Punish those who masterminded the program (and who didn't themselves have to risk physical retaliation on the field). War crimes tribunals tend to focus on the political leaders and the generals, not on the soldiers who followed their orders. And so it must be with the NFL.