Bounty-Gate? Really, that's what we're going to call this? Has anyone besides me become irritated with the practice of adding "-gate" to the end of everything that's supposed to be a scandal? I understood the Nixon recording scandal being titled Watergate. After all, the break-in took place of the Democratic National Committee happened at the Watergate office complex; hence "Watergate Sandal." Are there a bunch of audio tapes laying around in Rodger Goodell's office of coaches and players outlining their strategies to use 'bounties' to win games? Did all the conversations take place in the Watergate complex as well? Were all the payout lists written on the backs of Bounty brand paper towels? First things first, bounty-gate is a stupid name for the events that have taken place in NFL locker rooms across this country for longer than anyone wants to admit. Let's call it something else: Awakening.
Please don't fool yourself. This is a public relations disaster for the league. Goodell has risked his job and popularity upon the idea of cleaning up the NFL. He's changed kick-off rules, instituted fines and suspensions, modified what is to be considered a legal hit, and invested huge sums of money in equipment research. All in the name of player safety. The commissioner has made it quite clear through his speech and actions that during his tenure the NFL will become safer place to play. The ten year CBA deal might be the biggest feather in his cap, but player safety represents the whole damn chicken. The 'Awakening' has let all the fans in on a dirty little not-so-secret. NFL football is a violent game played by violent men that are, in fact, trying to hurt each other. It's ALWAYS been true that defensive players are trying to hurt the guys they sack, tackle, dislodge a ball away from, block, and blow-up. Anyone that tries to tell you otherwise is lying or ignorant of the true nature of the game. The 'Awakening' isn't exposing some dark corner of the game or a hidden evil shoved away into some corner that only a minor few have ever taken part in. What it's actually done is to shine a light on just how far apart Goodell's version of football is from that of the players.
All the feathers in all the caps of everyone involved with the CBA aren't going to change the fact that the NFL is violent game in which players are going to get hurt, a lot.
I fully expect the league to come down on every coach, GM, and owner that can be proved to have knowledge or be involved with Awakening with the force of solar gravity itself. The league office must do everything it can to send the message to the fans and coaches (not the players) that bounties will not be tolerated. If you're a Saints fan, get ready for your team to get bent over the nearest waist high structure so that the league can insert the sword of justice (and the scales too if Goodell can cram them in there). While it may be true that justice is blind, in this case she has an agenda.
Defensive players have a goal. Sure, they want to stop the ball carrier, break up a pass, sack a quarterback, and win the game. That's first and foremost, but only a tiny sliver separates first and second. Secondly, defensive players want to punish every person they block, hit, and tackle for having the stones to try and advance the ball through them. The best players on defense (and offense for that matter) are the ones that want to hit an opponent so hard that it rattles them both physically, and mentally. Some of them strive to make sure the hit is legal, but legal and safe are far from the same thing. The idea of players encouraging each other monetarily for big hits and game changing plays isn't something new or different. The idea didn't get passed down by a coach to be taken up by the players. There were bounties in professional football long before there were twenty-some odd coaches pushing players to be the best they could become.
Speaking from personal experience I can say with complete honesty that bounties for interceptions, knock down hits, pancake blocks, causing a fumble, quarterback sacks, and yes.... sending a dominate opposing player to the sidelines exist in high school and college football; long before professional coaches ever started getting in on the act. It's not a secret among the players, although it's usually hidden from the coaches to a degree. The hits are still celebrated on the sidelines and in the locker room in full view of the coaches. Players got the pats on the back and the congratulations from their teammates for hurting an opponents to the point they could not return to the game even with coaches in the same room. Sometimes, it was the coaches that were handing out the pats on the back.
However, the money that was put up by the players into the pool was exchanged outside the locker room or when the coaches weren't in view. Bounties are nothing new and different. They don't represent a scandal that's limited to the modern big money game of professional football. Bounties have been around for at least as long as I've played the game, and on every level from pro to pee wee. In most cases the coaches probably knew what was going on even if the players tried to hide it. And in most cases the coaches don't do anything to stop it. The side bets for big plays among the players acted as a motivational tool for the team, and coaches love motivational tools.
"Whoa there you idiot!" you say to yourself. "Pee wee? Now that's just a lie. There are no bounties in pee wee football. You're just using sensationalism for sake of readership. We're going to have to start calling you Whitlock if you don't back down"
I cannot back down from that statement. From the very beginning of a child's football career they are offered special rewards for big hits, sacks, and pancake blocks. It starts out with an ice cream sundae awarded to the kids during the pizza party after the game in the pee wee leagues, and continues on to stickers to be affixed to their helmets as they get older. Those twenty stickers on your youth football child's helmet represent a tally of big plays. They may be awarded to linemen and defensive players for pancake blocks, sacks, batted down passes, and tackles. Offensive players can earn them for touchdowns, runs or passes over 20 yards, receptions, or whatever else the coaches want to reward. At the end of the season those stickers are all added up and a reward usually follows. Youth football players may be rewarded with time off practice, or exemption from running laps, or pizza brought to the school for lunch, or any of a thousand other things. These rewards are given out by the coaches. While I'm aware it's not exactly the same thing as cash for big plays, it's certainly a similar system of additional rewards for violent or scoring plays. Pancake blocks and big hits are rewarded by the coaching staff just the same. They are used as a motivational tool to aid in firing up players for the game ahead. The actual prize for performance isn't straight cash, but to a 10 year old youth player, pizza and ice cream are almost as good as the cash he would have used to buy pizza and ice cream.
I don't expect to see many players facing the kind of penalties that will be handed down to coaches and owners. The clubs will suffer just the same, but the players have already been fined for any illegal hits they might have engaged in after the game was played. If a devastating hit was NOT an illegal hit according to NFL rules, exactly what would the player be punished for? I expect to see some players caught up in the net. High profile players and those that tossed in a bounty, such as Vilma and his now infamous $10,000 award, are going to face the leagues music for sure.
Players that can be shown to have taken part in side bets that rewarded the injuring of opponents will also probably be subject to minor penalty. However, I don't see any punishment being handed down for pool bets where each teammate that wants to buy into the pool tosses in an equal amount of money and the winner takes the pool. (For things like interceptions, or the first sack, or pancake blocks, or even the number of hits to an opposing quarterback).
This cover-up, if it can even be called that, has a lot more to do with owners and coaches that are encouraging violence in the game during a time when Rodger Goodell is discouraging the same behavior. Football is a violent sport, and that's never going to change. In fact, if it did change, the popularity of the sport would sink like the Titanic bouncing off an ice berg. We all love the violence. Admit that to yourself right now. Embrace the truth of the situation. You love the violence. You revel in the smash mouth nature of the game. You want to see a guy get hit so hard both his feet leave the ground and he's driven into the turf like a rag doll. A passionate defender is trying to hurt every opponent that he hits. They want to sap the will and the fire right out their opponents through crushing contact.
They want the guy they face one on one to lay on the ground and think about what it means to try and run that ball through the line again. They want a quarterback flustered and running scared in the pocket because he's been beaten, battered, and bruised all game long. They want Aaron Rodgers to stop looking down field, and start looking to his blind side to see if he's about to get the snot knocked out of him. And yes, they want the player they face down after down to limp off the field to the sideline, unable to return for the rest of the game. A passionate, competitive
That's football. Violence is in the very nature of the game. If the league wants to make it known that coaches and owners should not be involved with the practice of using rewards for injuries,so be it. I can understand that stance, but it's not going to change the violence of the sport. Here's the rub, no one wants to see another player seriously injured. At the same time, everyone wants to hurt the guy they face on every down. You've heard the question posed by many coaches, Are you hurt or are you injured? If you're injured go see the trainer. If you're just hurt then suck it up and get back out there. We need you on the field, not the bench." We hear that question starting in youth intramural leagues. There is a fine line between hurt and injured, and that's the line the players balance on every single day. They want to hurt you. They want you out of the game. They want to make you pay dearly for every yard, for every inch. They want to hit you so hard that you don't want to play anymore. Those kinds of hits and that kind of attitude directly leads to serious injuries, but no player is trying to injure another. They just want to hurt one another.
You can remove the coaches and the owners from the bounty system. You might even get the players to hide it behind closed doors. But I think the best you can really expect is for a change in language. Instead of players putting their money in the pool for the guy that knocks Brett Favre out of the game, they'll reward the guy that hits Bret Farve the most number of times. And really, is that going to change anything? This "awakening" has a lot more to do with protecting the leagues image for the fans and Goodell's legacy as the commissioner than it does protecting the players from each other.
I fully agree that coaches and owners should not be involved in encouraging the act of causing injury to other players. If it can be found that's what was happening then something should be done to stop it. I just don't believe that was happening at all. I don't believe, for one second, that any player, coach, or owner was truly encouraging his fellow players or teammate to try and severely injure someone. I happen to think they put rewards in place for big plays, big hits, and to motivate guys to go out there and hurt someone. Hurting someone might result in injuring that same person. I don't deny that. But hurting someone is part of the game of football. Always has been, always will be; at every single level of the game. Football is a violent sport, and that's exactly why we love it.