New Orleans’ ‘bounty hunting’ part of NFL DNA

Spare me the outrage, the moral posturing and the sanctimonious grandstanding by anyone who claims to be offended that pro football is a tough, violent, nasty game.

Football has risen to its status as America’s favorite sport because of the game’s inherent physical nature.

Watch any game at any sports bar, and you hear whoop after whoop after whoop when a helmet-launching hit is replayed once, twice, three times on the television screens.

Speed, athleticism, drama, the betting line – all of that contributes to football’s popularity.

But the violence – the big hits — takes it over the top. It makes the crowd roar.

If you’re judging the New Orleans Saints today for being caught running a “bounty” program, no problem.

Just admit that you like the big hits, the same way you like hockey fights and watch replays of the crashes on auto races.

In football, I’m not talking about head shots that endanger a player’s well being. But the clean, hard hits that send bodies toppling head over heels are imbedded in football’s DNA. Eliminate them and you have something other than the game America loves most.

The Saints took it beyond acceptable limits when the “bounty” program was exposed in a two-year investigation by the NFL. It started in 2010 and covered three seasons, from 2009-2011.

The NFL released its findings on Friday, saying in a statement that between 22 and 27 players participated in a “Pay for Performance” program that paid bonuses for inflicting injuries that forced opposing players out of games.

The program, according to the NFL’s statement, paid $1,500 for a “knockout” and $1,000 for a “cart-off.”

Players contributed to the pool and regularly received what the NFL termed “improper” bonus payments.

Former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who recently was hired by the Rams, has released a statement apologizing for his involvement.

Williams has been called to New York to meet with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell today.

According to the NFL, Williams administered the program with the knowledge of his defensive assistants.

Also in the statement, the NFL said Saints GM Mickey Loomis failed to take action to discontinue the program after being made aware of it. And head coach Sean Payton failed to stop the program, although the NFL said he was not a direct participant.

The Saints are going to go down hard, and deservedly so.

Penalties handed down by Goodell are likely to be the harshest in league history against a franchise and its upper management.

Loomis, Payton and Williams are likely to be fined and suspended. The franchise faces a hefty fine and the loss of draft picks – either this year or next.

There is no reasonable defense for the Saints – as much for the stupidity and arrogance of having a defensive coordinator operate a “bounty” program as for the program itself.

Since Friday’s announcement, the reaction among current and former players has been widespread and predictable, with many saying that players have had bounties for decades.
 
It is part of their game – part of their culture, really – for players to have an incentive among themselves to get a payoff for big plays and big hits.

It’s one thing to get a weekly six-figure paycheck from your employer. It’s quite another to take a few hundred bucks off a guy you see in your position group’s meeting room every day for six months. It’s not the money but the achievement.

There is a warrior code in football that puts a premium on toughness, whether it’s playing with pain, going over the middle to catch a pass or delivering big hits.

It is celebrated in the history of the game, despite some horrible consequences.

The late Jack Tatum, who spent most of his pro career playing safety for the Raiders and was nicknamed “The Assassin,” was involved in one of those horrible events.

In a 1978 exhibition game, Tatum collided with Patriots receiver Darryl Stingley, who was stretched out going for a pass over the middle. Stingley was paralyzed for life. Stingley died in 2007.

Two years after the hit, Tatum wrote his autobiography “They Call Me Assassin.” Tatum wrote that he wanted a receiver to go back to the sideline with “train whistles blowing in his head.”

To the end, Tatum never expressed regret about his playing style.

Chris Spielman, one of the most admired Lions of his era for his all-out play at linebacker, often spoke about the intent of a hard, legal hit that might put a player out of the game.

But you wanted the player to get up and play the next week, not end his career, Spielman said.

It’s all part of the code, part of the culture.

And a big part of the attraction.