Soaking in all of the moral outrage and denunciations of New Orleans Saints football and listening to all of the cries for the firing and banning of general manager Mickey Loomis, coach Sean Payton and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams since bounty-gate (1) leaked, my first thought was:
Who will play Barry Bonds in this “sports tragedy”?
This Saints bounty hunting “scandal” has so many similarities with the performance-enhancing drug “scandal” baseball endured that, of course, we are trending toward a day when a single player unfairly becomes a lightning rod for an issue actually endemic to the league.
Here is the script, as provided by baseball: The league tacitly endorses a behavior that makes it a crazy amount of money (steroids, violent hits). Then public sentiment starts to shift because of highly publicized, sad cases of real tragedy. (2) The league quickly moves to isolate and paint revealed offenders as aberrations. That quickly crumbles. More cases emerge.
Hysteria builds, finally crescendoing into calls for change. Only later do we realize what a farce it all was, and so it will be with this hand-wringing over bounties.
Every NFL team financially encourages violent takedowns of star players. Some just pay for it during the season and others in contract negotiations. To pretend otherwise is either disingenuous or the work of those with a financial stake in perpetuating the hypocrisy.
Williams is shaping up to be Jose Canseco in this comedic farce. The NFL and its minions will go to all extremes to paint him as a rogue, the lone miscreant in a league otherwise concerned first and foremost about the brain health of its players.
Ignore the 18-game schedule push, please.
Ignore the head-hunting highlights playing everywhere, including The NFL Network.
By all means, ignore Sundays worth of evidence to the contrary.
Instead let’s sell this narrative that what Williams did hurt people and shortened careers while what Ray Lewis unleashed Sunday after Sunday was Hall of Fame-worthy, the lone distinction being when payment was promised and made.
What a farce, indeed.
This is what Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison was trying to tell us at the Super Bowl two years ago and later in his viciously honest rant to Men’s Health. We pretend to vilify this “dirty offshoot” of football — hard hits and the very real price of them. When really, it is all part of the game. It is football.
The Saints were no more violent than anybody else. They simply had a different payment plan, and that might not even end up being all that unique.
There is always money on the board in the NFL. What all defensive players know is the harder they hit, the more victories they accumulate, the more money that will be waiting for them.
So can we stop pretending Williams’ crime was fostering a culture in which violent hits are rewarded? That is the NFL. What we hate Williams for is revealing the hypocrisy of pretending anything else to be true.
He outed the league. He outed all of us.
Want the truth? We all have been paying bounties to NFL players for hurting opponents — in page views for our columns, in TV numbers, in jersey sales, in YouTube clicks — long before Williams.
The bounties do not lead to brain injuries. The violent nature of the sport does. The lack of respect for brain injuries and concussions is the bigger reason for long-term problems.
Real quick: What was more dangerous — Williams allowing $5,000 on the board for a big hit or sending Browns quarterback Colt McCoy back in with a concussion? (On a hit by Harrison, by the way.) Now which are we spending more time talking about?
What I almost guarantee is coming are more and more defensive guys admitting they had bounty programs. Maybe they were not as organized as New Orleans. Maybe they did not operate with tacit approval from the coach and GM. But former NFL quarterback and surefire Hall of Famer Brett Favre is right: There is not a team in the league that does not target and try to take out star players.
I am jumping ahead, though. Right now, we are at the frothy stage where we wrongly extrapolate that all of these guys are dying of dementia because of Williams and his bounty system, and not because of the very nature of football.
It is a genius plan. And it works for a while.
Journalists, in particular, love moral outrage. We will turn this into a Gregg Williams-New Orleans story and take turns acting shocked and appalled that violence is encouraged and rewarded in football.
What we eventually will learn is the players do not care, or they do care but are willing to assume the risks for a big payday. This is not unlike "Ice Road Truckers."
There are less dangerous roads. They do not pay as much.
The fans certainly do not care. Nor does the commissioner, despite what you have read and will undoubtedly read in coming days. Or maybe he does care, but he just cannot find his way out of the problem.
The league needs the violence. And it also needs to look like it is all about player safety. This is where New Orleans, Loomis, Payton and mostly Williams actually help.
Denounce, fire, ban, and then wait and hope.
Wait and hope for a Barry Bonds to come along and take heat off of the NFL for denouncing on a small scale what it does on a large one.
Notes: (1) When will "–gate" stop being a suffix for every single scandal, real or imagined? (2) In baseball, it was the high school player who killed himself because of, as his dad later testified before Congress, steroids. In football, Dave Duerson is the highest-profile case of a former NFL player taking his life in part because of problems he believed caused by a history of concussions. His son is now suing the league.