Bounty Ethics in the NFL

Posted on March 6, 2012


nfl bountyIt’s now day 5 of “bountygate” and there’s surely very little left to be said. For those not entranced by the blue glow of 24/7 sports gossip on ESPN and the NFL Network (where gaggles of pundits on retainer need something to gab about between the early-Februrary Super Bowl and the late-April draft), or for those stumbling on this post when all this has blown over, here’s the revelation. With varying degrees of managerial complicity, many pro football teams arrange for players to collect informal cash payments for certain on-field accomplishments. Some are for positive, though rare, results; say, when a special-teams player forces a fumble. And some — the ones drawing most of the fire right now — are for players who deliver “big hits” (which can be perfectly “legal”), or who manage to knock an opposing player out of the game (perhaps by causing a concussion or severe injury).

The television punditry is stocked with former players, and the issue of bounties arises regularly. It is a full-blown “gate”-suffix-worthy scandal right now because the NFL actually conducted an investigation into a bounty system in which the New Orleans Saints’ defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams (who now has the same job with the Rams), seems to have played a role. For the best commentary I have seen so far on the institution of the bounty and why the league suddenly seems to care about it, check out Steve Coll’s piece in The New Yorker. Here are a couple of nuggets from that article:

The N.F.L. lacks the credibility and the motivation to fully expose whatever dark ecosystem we have just stumbled upon. The investigation summary released on Friday afternoon—a time zone well known as the media graveyard for press releases, one favored by strategic communications consultants of a certain unembarrassed type—is the equivalent of the general counsel at Goldman Sachs or Bank of America disclosing a few problems on the bank’s mortgage trading floor. A self-policing investigator has an interest in cleaning up the mess in a way that minimizes liability.

And Coll puts his finger on why both the NFL brass and its players are, or ought to be, worried about the practice of bounties:

It is easy to understand the League’s self-protecting instincts. The N.F.L. has been named as a defendant in more than a dozen civil lawsuits filed by former players who are seeking damages on the grounds that the League did not do enough to protect them from concussions and other debilitating injuries. These findings will provide a new dimension to the claims of the players who are suing. Imagine going to work in a factory every day where it turns out the manufacturing team across the floor, in order to make its productivity bonus, is paying the guy who runs the factory equipment to deliberately mangle your team’s hands—and that management knows what is going on.

The N.F.L. is a multi-billion dollar workplace. Its injured former employees and their lawyers are going to sort out the League’s liability and complicity….

Coll and (to be fair) even most of the former-player pundits understand why it is so difficult for the NFL to draw the line between appropriate and inappropriate violence in professional football. Most fans instinctively recognize that these bounties are on the wrong side of the line, even when only “legal” hits are rewarded. But why, exactly? My pal Chris MacDonald sketches much of the answer here and here. And I’ll add a few more thoughts in my next post.