If you didn’t already know, Sean Payton, head coach of the New Orleans Saints, was recently suspended for the entire 2012-13 NFL season.
Payton was reprimanded for his role in the Saints’ bounty program. Defensive players and coaches pooled money to reward each other for particularly vicious hits on the opposing team. A player could earn $1,000 for “cart-offs” and $1,500 for “knockouts.” Big names like Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton, and Brett Favre were often the target. Favre, in fact, had a $10,000 ‘bounty’ placed on his head in the 2009 NFC Championship.
I find this all quite disturbing, but I am also a quasi-pacifist who isn’t particularly fond of the NFL in any case, so my discomfort should be taken with a hefty grain of salt. What strikes me the most about this situation, though, is the blatant contradiction. What, after all, is a Pro-Bowl linebacker paid to do? What do the fans pay to see? Why do the biggest hits go viral? People remember the touchdowns and they remember the knockouts.
Here in Seattle we love Marshawn Lynch because not only does he reach the end zone, but he punishes the defense en route. He’s one of the hardest-hitting NFL players — on either side of the ball — and he just earned a $30 million contract because of that.
When Roger Goodell assumed the helm of the NFL in 2006, the league changed direction. He publicly emphasized safety and has done so with an iron fist. Suspensions and fines have been handed out left and right for hits and tackles that did not fit within the regulations outlined by the league offices.
Still reeling from my own tackle-football injury in the fall 2010 (true story), I of all people understand this emphasis on safety. But how can an emphasis on safety exist in a sport that is so inherently violent?
Speaking of contradiction, while Mr. Goodell is brandishing his punishing skills in the name of health and safety, hundreds of former NFL players — including the likes of Jim McMahon and Jamal Lewis — have joined together to sue the league for negligence leading to life-long health traumas, specifically concussion-related issues. To put it in context, former NFL players aged 30-49 are 19 times more likely than the general population to develop Alzheimer’s Disease or a similar memory-related diseases.
The most interesting, and chilling, detail of all of this is that research done by Purdue University has shown brain damage is sustained not necessarily through the biggest collisions, but rather through consistent hits that are largely ignored by trainers. The groundwork of football is causing brain damage, not the ‘hit-stick,’ ESPN top-10 plays.
And here we are, Mr. Goodell and Co. are coming down on the prime-time hits, reprimanding those that reward big tackles all while essentially ignoring the real issue. It seems that much of the commissioner’s actions are done to improve the league’s image rather than the health of any of its players.
So I ask, Mr. Goodell, what exactly are you doing?
Reach opinion writer Holden Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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