When it was a Game…Thoughts on the Saints

Do you remember the time when it was a game?  The time when it was fun; a break from the less enjoyable activities; a privilege earned and thus not only enjoyed but appreciated.  Whether on a well manicured lush green field with perfectly painted lines amidst a bevy of spectators or on a barren patch of ground enlightened by a setting Sun with an acknowledgment that anything past the tree was a touchdown, the ditch out of bounds, and score talks, loser walks, before the next kickoff or usually throw to mark the other team’s possession.  As young children, the second environment received near daily visits and by high school, Friday night truly meant four quarters under the lights.  The high school field may not have been the lushest of green, the chalk lines became covered in dust, and at times you may discover an unwelcome element on the field such as a stray rock, shard of glass, or even a colony of fire ants.  The sizes of the crowd fluctuated as well, but win or lose it was a game on Friday night.  A privilege garnered from working in the classrooms during the week and through sweat, bruises, and cramping muscles resulting from before and after school practices.

For most, direct participation in the game ended after high school.  It was a part of the rearing, a method of the shaping of the type of person you would become after high school as you traveled out into a new world.  A select few had the opportunity to continue with the game at the college level.  There the fields became plusher, the number of spectators increased, and so did the commitment, and expectations.  A student/athlete:  going to class like your peers but with the additional obligations to be ready for a game on Saturday.  Of course some forgot that the concept of student came before that of athlete.  That always makes news, but in reality losing the concept of student and replacing it with another moniker is prevalent throughout most colleges and universities.  The pool of athletes, however, is typically a much smaller proportion of the overall student population but one of the most visible simply from marketing exposure.

Somehow the game was not as simple and innocent like in days past.  Your teammates and opponents had come from a selected pool of high school players and thus the sizes and skill levels were far more progressed.  Your coaches did not have the additional tasks of teaching you and other students such courses as biology or history during the day before donning the coaching hat later in the day.  Instead of an activity which collected a small amount of revenue in receipts at the gate in hopes of breaking even, you participated in the updated game where universities, sponsors, alumni, and others spent millions in an attempt to collect even more money via the success of the program.  If, however, you received any “special” or “monetary” incentives, for being a participant in the updated game, you faced the repercussions.  In fact, everything about you as an athlete no longer belonged to you but to someone else.  They could capitalize financially off of your name or likeness through different types of products, but you could not.  Still, you had incentives.  Incentives not just in the form of receiving access to higher education, but the possibility to become a part of an elite pool selected from the highly filtered pool of athletes making it to your level.  That elite pool was to play professionally, on Sundays, with the potential to earn more money in a year than many earn in a lifetime.

Just like the days with tree and ditch markers and the Friday night fields of high school, you needed to separate yourself from your peers.  Many schools, both of high and low profile, have their own incentive program to assist.  These incentives are not against any rules, but are symbols of your success that can be seen during the season and not simply through award recognitions afterwards.  In essence, you participated in a tiered system which offered various levels of bounties based on performance.  These rewards took the form of school emblems placed on your helmet for things such as scoring a touchdown, creating a turnover, making a devastating block or a spectacular play on defense.  In addition, personal and instant stardom could be achieved whether by a vicious or just spectacular highlight seen on Sportscenter or other media outlet.  In other words, the schools and coaches created an incentive program with the full blessings of the regulating bodies.

If you were one of the few to play the game professionally, what has changed?  Players are larger, stronger, faster, and more talented than at any level.  For a select few, compensation is higher than one could have imagined.  The majority, however, will receive less compensation in terms of salaries, play for only a short period of time, and then deal with physical problems resulting from natural wear and tear on their bodies even if they were fortunate enough to avoid any serious injuries during their playing career.

Of course I do not know all of the facts and even allegations regarding the New Orleans Saints.  The media exposure has not presented anything that would change anyone’s opinion regardless of  their original position.  If you believe the Saints guilty, you can find ample film footage and statements to justify your argument.  Likewise, if you believe the Saints innocent, there is more than enough film footage and statements to make that point.  Neither side, however, really has that indisputable proof to sway someone of the opposite opinion.  Both sides have enough proof to convince themselves that their position is the correct position.  Examine any particular play and people will only see what they want to see.  The Wall Street Journal on 6 March 2012 ran a story, “Little Booty in Saints Bounties.”  By examining the 54 games in question, the amount of money that would have changed hands in the bounty system was approximately $19,000.  A player with a base salary of $7 million per year would have collected the largest total of the bounty by earning $4,500.  During the same period in question, five (5) other NFL teams had more personal fouls called against them than did the Saints.

The paragraph above will appear as justification or a statement of innocence.  It is not because if there were any attempts to intentionally injure an opponent through illegal play, the behavior cannot be tolerated.  I’ll even argue that an attempt or desire to injure an opponent through legal play should not be tolerated.  I do have some questions.  How many things are truly a secret?  I mean if you felt someone was trying to intentionally injure you or a teammate wouldn’t you seek to protect your teammate?  In baseball, if someone gets hit by a pitch, what does the opposing pitcher usually do if not in the same inning but later in the game?  How many times do the benches clear with just a brush back high and tight without any contact or on a takeout slide with the spikes directed over the bag?  Throughout the course of a football game, there are countless times when a “revenge” or “message” shot could be delivered fully within the rules of the game.  Also, some of the accused later played against the Saints as members of opposing teams.  Why would they put themselves and their new teammates at risk?

Injuries will occur in football regardless of the amount or degree of precautions taken just from the nature of the sport and the size and speed of the participants.  Many of the most devastating injuries to individual players happen within the course of a play without any malicious intent.  One of the most prominent, Joe Theismann, had his leg broken while being sacked by Lawrence Taylor on Monday Night Football.  It was the type of injury which remains etched into the mind of even the most casual of viewers who witnessed it on television.  Even those too young to remember the event saw it during the opening of the movie The Blindside.  Theismann never played again, but I doubt if any of players on the field that night intended to hurt Theismann or were happy about the injury.

One thing to consider in regard to the penalties levied against the Saints today is what if the term “bounty” had been replaced with the term “incentive.”  For the sake of argument, let us imagine that no incentives to injure were in place, but only incentives for key plays such as forcing a turnover or a pancake block.  Unlike in NCAA football where game by game recognitions are allowed, it is not allowed in the NFL.  Any type of incentive must be specified in the player contract and based upon the entire season, not on performance in individual games.  Imagine a sport where the “star” earning millions would give up a portion of his “adjusted per game” salary to a teammate making the league minimum who had earned the starting position by out-working and out-performing the million dollar individual.  How many spectators would oppose basing compensation in part on the number of snaps taken and performance during the actual game?

For the sake of argument, who is guilty when an injured player is allowed back into the game which ultimately results in escalating the degree of injury?  It has only been in recent years that potential damage from concussions has been taken more seriously.  Did that one hit by the Saints on Kurt Warner result in his retirement, or was it a hit which when added to numerous others through the years that led to the decision?  Brett Favre did take some hits during the NFC Championship game against the Saints, but many years earlier Fran Tarkenton received many, many more as he scrambled and did everything possible to keep a play alive.  Likewise, the Purple People Eaters of the day knocked out a number of opposing players.  How many times is the playoff hit on Reggie Bush by Sheldon Brown replayed?  How many articles discussed how the Eagles had prepared all week to catch Bush in that particular spot?  There were no mentions of bounties, but only the praise of preparation and of a tremendous hit.  How many of the all time great NFL players of the past would be regarded differently today in terms of effectiveness with all of the rule changes on defense?  Possibly some of the greatest sack artists would rank the same, but would there be any safeties or middle linebackers in the Hall of Fame?  The all time greats at those positions are known for their control and domination of their area.  Most receivers dared not to enter, and the few who did often saw a unique body change as their arms shrunk where they could not stretch toward the football and expose their body to a hit.

Do I believe that the Saints intentionally tried to injure opposing players by breaking the rules?  No.  I believe players on the other teams would have reacted.  Something like this could not have been kept secret on the field for this length of time.

Do I believe that Saints players intentionally tried to injure opposing players within the rules of the game?  No, merely from a professionalism standpoint but with a caveat that I believe every player is trying to intimidate his opponent in every way possible.  A hard hit delivers a message.  On the offensive side, holding onto the catch or making the yardage marker even after absorbing a vicious hit delivers a message as well.  The same can be said of a pancake block or a stiff arm.

Are the Saints guilty?  I say yes, but not for attempting to injure players.  In all probability, they are guilty of a system where players received kudos for big plays on a game by game basis.  I use the qualifier “in all probability” solely from not having access to the paperwork resulting from the NFL investigation.  Regardless an award system of that nature is an infraction in the NFL code regardless of whether these kudos are termed that — incentives, or bounties.  Would such an infraction warrant the degree of the penalties levied?  I would argue that it does not.

The penalties, however, despite their harshness, are warranted against the Saints in this matter for another issue which has not been addressed in the majority of commentaries I have read to this point.  If my understanding is accurate, the Saints along with every NFL team received a memo stating the league’s position on any type of bounty or incentive program.  If one did exist with an individual team, the practice was to cease immediately.  Coach Payton is on record that he did in fact know of the system in place and failed to take action.  I do not believe the system was a true “bounty” system.  I base that on the findings by The Wall Street Journal and more importantly the actions, or really lack of actions, by the Saints’ opponents in regard to these accusations.

The penalties are warranted not so much by the act, but by the attempt to cover up the process.  In many ways, I will equate the punishment to Watergate of the 1970s.  It was not the actual bugging of the Watergate complex, but the situations which resulted later which led to Richard Nixon resigning as President of the United States.  I know that Warner retired, but I am not aware of anyone suffering a career ending injury against the Saints during this bounty period.  I can, however, think of other hits which resulted in the ending of individual careers during the same time period.  A few drew flags or fines upon later review, but I doubt if the levier of any of the hits desired to end the career of another player.  I believe the intent was more in line with the nature of the game.  Like Nixon and Watergate, attempts by the Saints to cover up certain actions only led to the digging of a deeper hole in which to fall.

I am disappointed in both the circumstances and the degree of the penalties levied.  That’s from a belief that the majority of, and hopefully all,  professional football players are not intentionally trying to injure other players.  The disappointment from the degree of penalties is from the perspective of a lifelong Saints fan.  These penalties do send a clear message that disregarding league policies and directives will not be tolerated.  Penalties need to make the reward of any action simply not worth the risk involved.  Then if you have consistency on when, where, how, and why the penalties are carried out, there is no room for complaining.

Remember when it was just a game?  Remember when you learned that there was no “I” in “Team?”  Now why can’t we remember that the term sport is actually the beginning of a more valuable word:  sportsmanship?  It seems like it was easier to remember that back when it was just a game, and we were the ones participating.  Why can’t we act the same way from the stands today, as coaches on the sideline, and keep the integrity of the game?  We learned by observing those older than us.  Do we really want the young people today to learn by observing and mimicking our behavior and attitudes as spectators?  Is the atmosphere at sporting events of any level the same as we enjoyed as kids?  Sure there is money and other variables involved today that may or may not have existed in the past, but how or maybe why, did that change the very simplicity of the game?  Perhaps those involved and even us as players, coaches, fans, or casual spectators will learn something from this event.  Looking into a mirror or seeing a reflection of what we have become is not always an enjoyable experience.