Monday, March 5, 2012

Pay to Maim--Making Football Players Felons

Football is a violent game; the violence powers its structure and attraction. I have written at length about how this violence requires greater moral discipline from players and coaches than any other athletic endeavors. The game grows from the disciplined application of force against other human beings. In its normal practice within rules, the sport almost guarantees elite college and professional players will have shorter life spans, physically disabled futures and, worse, more than a few will lose their personhood to the depredations of brain injury.

Grown physically large men unleash focused aggression upon each other to block, tackle, run, pass, and catch. The level of force they inflict with this aggression would destroy most of us physically if we were not wearing weaponized armor and superbly trained. Only the tightest self and peer discipline among players and coaches keeps the game intact. Its intensity, ferocity and energy resembles a fusion reaction barely contained by internal forces. It can easily destabilize and explode into something worse, where the game becomes criminal assault.

The key here as with uniformed services lies in intention. The infliction of violent force upon another human being must serve a distinct and limited purpose to be defensible. If I tackle someone to stop the run, that fits with the norms and defensible approach to the game. If I a ball or cause a fumble, that fits. If I block someone hard within the rules, that fits. All this skilled and fierce force hurts, but if serious injury occurs, it is not intended but flows from another action—to block tackle, run, strip within the context of the game. These rules and intentions keep the game from being criminal assault.

Criminal assault occurs when a person  physically attacks or asserts force against another human being with the intent of maiming or injuring them so they cannot go on in their life role. It lies in the intent to injure and harm. Criminal assault that occurs because a person is paid to hurt someone involves a more heinous crime than one that involves passion or loss of control. So intentional maiming or injurying for money involves moral and criminal assault.

Now we know the New Orleans’ Saints turned football into criminal assault.

"The league’s investigation determined that this improper “Pay for Performance” program included “bounty” payments to players for inflicting injuries on opposing players that would result in them being removed from a game," NFL said in a statement. “Commissioner Goodell will determine punishment." "The players regularly contributed cash into a pool and received improper cash payments of two kinds from the pool based on their play in the previous week’s game," NFL said
Now we learn that a largely player financed fund provided bounties to players on the NFL New Orleans Saints over the last three years. $1,000 for a knock out and $1,500 for a cart off. 25 players over three years earned their reward.  A coach administered the fund, the head coach sanctioned it by his silence.

The sheer physical dangers of modern football are well known, and now the deeper dangers of later life crippling or loss of personhood from brain injury.  Football regimes from peewee through high school, college and professional are developing regulations that try to reduce the inevitable damage. The NFL union finally gained significant medical attention in the latest NFL.

Let's not romanticize football. It is hard, harsh and can be physically ugly. Long ago it lost any pretense to sportsmanship and coaches from Vince Lombardi to Bill Belichick mock the notion of football sportsmanship.

What scares me the most, the players did this to themselves. The players contributed the money and egged each other on. As mentioned, the “inmates are running the asylum.” It lets us know the reason why you need outside regulation rather than relying upon 24-28 year old aggressive males caught upon a culture to make rules. As Gregg Williams the coach who arranged it admits "It was a terrible mistake, and we knew it was wrong while we were doing it.”

They knew it was wrong! They knew they were maiming their compatriots, this is insane. The money is actually a pittance given the modern salaries but taken seriously for its symbolic importance. They were doing this at the same time retired football players are committing suicide as their brains disintegrate from damage sustained in the game.

Pay to maim moves a very violent sport from controlled violence with intent to win under the rules to rewarded felonious assault. It makes football players criminals.

Now football culture and media attention thrive on the big play and big hit. College players wear stickers on their helmets celebrating big plays. Replays go over it and controlled executed aggression can take on its own fearsome beauty. Even now old defensive players grumble about taking the football out of football, and Mike Golic talks on the ESPN about how this is blown out of proportion.
I am sorry, it is not. You do not violate the basic code of the sport, even one as elastic of footballs, by paying people to purposely injure, damage or maim other players.

Every football player has been injured, often many times. Every football player knows their career can end in a nano-second. A critical unwritten code permits players to play hard but not play to injure or maim,

Pay to maim violates the moral code and justification for football as a game or sport in at least three different ways.

  1. 1)   It disrespects the moral core of the game. The players intend to injure individuals for pay. They unleash their controlled violence not to pursue a designed play. The players act to injure or end the careers of other players,
  2. 2)   It destroys mutual respect among players. It turns fellow players into enemies rather than opponents. The moral structure of sport depends upon that distinction. While football spawns Rex Ryans of the world who think you have to hate your enemies to be effective players, athletic competition requires this distinction. This is even more important in a league where players move contantly and often end up playing with their opponents the next year.
  3. 3)   It violates the contract players make with themselves. No one expects deep rationality from 22-27 year old males embarked on football careers. They all claim to “know” the risks, but no one that age can understand the risk to their future selves and personhood posed by physical disability. They enter the game expecting to risk unintentional injury. They do not expect other players to play or be encouraged by coaches and rewarded to wound them so that they cannot play the game.

Everything about this stinks. Too bad the NFL does not have the power of the NCAA to vacate victories or take away championships because this deserves that treatment. Remember the Saints got to the Super Bowl by injuring Curt Warner and Brett Favre, now we  know why and how.

Careers should end for doing this. The fines should be immense. Suspensions should be long term. Football has to keep pushing on its culture. Even as players push back against Commissioner Goodell, this represents a classic case of needed regulation to protect players from themselves and protect the culture from its worst tendencies. 


  1. While the NFL has to punish these guys to maintain a veneer of civilization, it is hard for me to generate much more moral outrage at the system of bonuses by the Saints than for the very existence of the game.

    Imagine a game started by kicking a ball to a guy who ran runs through 11 other guys trying to knock his helmet off and jar the ball out of his hands. Or plays in which a ball is thrown to an unprotected receiver, and the excitement is seeing if he can hang on to it while being pummeled. It's well known that even legal plays can cause spectacular injuries, and a career of such punishment almost inevitably disables and often addles former pro players.

    The best cornerbacks knock receivers senseless, the best defensive ends hit the quarterbacks the hardest - that's the game.

    Only if one can tie the bonus system to a surplus of illegal hits, which in turn earned spectacular bonuses, would I buy that the injuries inflicted by the Saints were the product of anything more than the usual colosseum-style gladiator battle that attracts fans of violent sports. The bonus were tiny compared to their normal salaries.

    Every team is out to disable the opposing quarterback, make "big hits" on the running backs and receivers, and generally smack each other around, and fans love to watch it. I can't believe people are saying that football players do not, in the absence of bounties, try on every play to do damage to the players on the other team.

  2. nice opinion.. thanks for sharing....

  3. Years ago ice hockey was a much more violent game than it is today. (Understand that, even today, no one looking at athletic endeavors in which one propels a projectile towards a specific spot with a stick of some sort, is likely to confuse ice hockey with golf, in terms of the violence involved and the demeanor of the participants.) But the canard "I went to this fight and a hockey game broke out" was a fairly accurate description of action on the ice. Each team had its "enforcer" whose job it was to make sure that no one on the other team crossed whatever line there was in terms of doing physical punishment to his teams players, particularly the "stars." Their time on the ice very often ended with time in the "penalty box" and the offending opponent knowing that he had gone too far.

    Over the years, ice hockey has become more civilized rather than less (it is still not a game for the faint of heart). It would be interesting to determine how this occurred, what pressures were brought to bear and from what sources those pressures came.