Silence allows bounties to persist
As coach of the Indianapolis Colts, Tony Dungy faced the Tennessee Titans twice a year. That’s 14 times from 2002-08, when he left the sidelines to become a public speaker and broadcaster, the soft-spoken moral arbiter of a loud and violent game.
Yet it wasn’t until this past weekend that Dungy revealed — or, more accurately, charged — that the Titans used a bounty, an incentive-based scheme in which players were paid (presumably in cash) for knocking out or temporarily disabling members of the opposition. Bounties are suddenly big news, what with the NFL investigating former New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (who held the same position with the Titans from 1997-2000) for administering a pay-for-pain system.
"I do know in Tennessee they definitely had bounties," Dungy told the New York Times. "We had players that went there in free agency; we had some of their players who came to us as free agents who told us."
Bounties have been specifically outlawed in the NFL since at least the 1980s. Non-contractual bonuses were prohibited in 1994, when the league went to a salary-cap system.
Dungy was already an NFL assistant when the league conducted its first well-publicized bounty investigation. What’s more, as Dungy himself acknowledges, there is a real possibility that the player most responsible for his renown — Peyton Manning — suffered his first neck injury in a hit incentivized by one of Williams’ bounties.
Still, through all these years, Dungy said nothing to the league. He shared neither suspicion nor evidence. As a league spokesman told me Monday: “The first we heard (of) his statements was when he made them this past weekend. He did not share his concerns with our office.”
The point here isn’t to diminish Dungy. It’s to show what commissioner Roger Goodell is up against. It’s not bounties, really. It’s a way of thinking and a type of hypocrisy that goes back generations. Goodell can investigate and punish all he wants. Can he change the nature of the game? Maybe. But I doubt it.
I mean, if you can’t expect Tony Dungy to do the right thing, then who?
There has been a lot of talk these past few days concerning the reasons for Goodell’s probe. Bounties are an old story, it is argued. The commissioner’s real concern is the many player safety and concussion-related lawsuits that name the NFL as a plaintiff. Finally, Williams is being scapegoated.
The proper response should be “yes,” “perhaps” and “so what?”
If the NFL is making an example of Williams, well, is that really such a bad thing? Bounties, in one form or another, may constitute an NFL tradition. That doesn’t make it justifiable. Better to deal with the issue belatedly than not at all.
Goodell’s position, to be sure, is not without its double standards. Note that the NFL Films website is still selling a video called “Big Blocks and King-Size Hits,” described as “an inside look into the mentality of hitting and the heart of the hitman.”
This being the NFL, there is nothing in such short supply as irony. After all, you have a renowned analyst for the league’s own cable channel, Warren Sapp, who goes by the Twitter handle “@QBKILLA.” Again, it’s what passes for tradition. Back in the 1970s, you had a defensive back who fancied himself the “Assassin.” Too bad Jack Tatum wasn’t around for the proliferation of cable networks and sports channels. He could have made, well, a killing.
It’s worth reminding you that Williams himself was shamelessly explicit on the eve of Super Bowl XLIV between the Saints and the Colts. His defense had just beaten up Brett Favre in the conference championship and now intended to inflict more of the same on Manning. He wanted his players putting “remember me” hits — think: concussive — on the Colts quarterback. He didn’t need a bounty to emphasize the point. He wanted Manning dazed and confused, but more than that, he wanted him out of the game.
"When you put too much of that type of worry on a warrior’s mind, he doesn’t play all out," Williams said at the time. ". . . If it happens, you hope he doesn’t get back up and play again."
Williams wasn’t castigated for divulging his game plan, certainly not by his coaching colleagues. It’s football, after all. He was just plain-speaking. But now, you throw in the bounty issue and Williams has become Public Enemy No. 1.
To date, the league’s most celebrated accusation of bounty hunting was quickly dropped for a lack of evidence. It was Thanksgiving 1989, when Jimmy Johnson, then coach of the Dallas Cowboys, leveled the accusation at Buddy Ryan and the Philadelphia Eagles.
"I have no respect for the way Philadelphia played," Johnson said following a 27-0 defeat. "An (Eagles) assistant coach told us last night, and it was verified by two players today that there was a $200 bounty on (kicker) Luis Zendejas and $500 on Troy Aikman."
The ensuing investigation was wrapped up in little more than two weeks. Zendejas, who had been cut by Philadelphia earlier that season, apparently taped a conversation with an Eagles assistant but for legal reasons failed to produce it for then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue’s investigators.
Still, the Eagles readily admitted to administering what they called a “big hits program.” It was league approved. Philadelphia was one of 12 teams that rewarded players for “impact plays” (i.e., forced fumbles, interceptions and, of course, bone-jarring, momentum-swinging hits). In the case of the Eagles, the rate of recompense was $100 a pop.
I don’t know what that translates to in today’s dollars. I know it sounds like a bounty. But it was also a long-established way of doing business.
"It’s been going on forever," Pat Summerall said at the time, referring to the bounties. ". . . It was a sort of gentlemen’s agreement, a sort of code you didn’t talk about. I think Jimmy Johnson didn’t know that."
Johnson was just an NFL rookie then. He hadn’t grown up in the pro game, like, say, a Tony Dungy.