Pro football hasn’t changed much over the years. And if you doubt that, consider the following sound bite:
“We try to hurt everybody. We hit each other as hard as we can. This is a man’s game.”
Those words appeared in a Time magazine story in 1959. The speaker? None other than Sam Huff, then mauling ball carriers for the New York Giants. Around the same time, a player complained to a referee that Baltimore Colts ruffian Bert Rechichar had scratched him. “Kid, this is the pros,” Rechichar told the whiner. “We don’t scratch up here. We just tear your eyeballs out.”
Every NFL stadium is a house of pain. But we prefer to think of that pain as a byproduct of a violent, ruthless game — a necessary evil. It’s harder to stomach when we learn of the New Orleans Saints‘ nefariousness under defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, formerly of the Washington Redskins. According to the league, Saints players received thousands of dollars in bonuses for “inflicting injuries” on opponents “that would result in them being removed from the game.” The money came from a pool created by the players and occasionally supplemented by Williams.
Another contributor, a report by Mike Freeman of CBSSports.com claims, was Mike Ornstein, a buddy of New Orleans coach Sean Payton and a one-time Oakland Raiders executive. Ornstein is a prince of a fellow who has done prison time for scalping Super Bowl tickets and selling fraudulent game-used jerseys. In other words, it’s a P.R. disaster for a league that has been going to great lengths to make the game safer — and is facing a growing number of lawsuits regarding concussions.
After all, it’s one thing for defensive players to throw a few bucks in a pot before a game (with the prize going to the guy who knocks out the quarterback or causes the running back to limp off). That’s been going on in pro football forever. But it’s another matter entirely when an assistant coach is the ringleader, when the head coach and general manager know about it and when enough dough is involved to encourage “kill shots” and other needlessly dangerous hits, the kind the NFL wants to eliminate. Then you’ve got an institutional breakdown, one that almost certainly isn’t limited to the Saints.
In fact, erstwhile Redskins safety Matt Bowen wrote in the Chicago Tribune on Friday that there was a similar program in Washington when Williams coached here. Players, Bowen said, were rewarded for “big hits, clean hits by the rule book.” But clearly, he has some misgivings about the practice — and about the league’s remorseless culture of doing “what has to be done.”
“No doubt, it can be downright disgusting living by a win-at-all-costs mentality,” he went on. “I’m not saying it’s right. Or ethical.”
The irony is that, in many respects, the game probably is cleaner today than it’s ever been. Until the ‘50s, let’s not forget, you could punch an opponent in the face any time you felt like it. There was no mask to get in the way. Indeed, there was a lawlessness to pro football in those days, an almost professional wrestling aspect to it, that’s hard to imagine now. Quarterbacks, in particular, routinely were roughed up. The league hadn’t put them on the endangered-species list yet.
But in the decades since, the NFL has become increasingly intolerant of roughhouse tactics. It isn’t unusual these days for a player to be docked a game check for an over-the-line hit that wasn’t even penalized. As Jimmy Johnson put it when he was coaching in Dallas, “I don’t think anybody today can come anywhere close to someone who played 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago. Nowadays, if you look wrong at a guy, you’re going to get a $5,000 fine. If [Conrad] Dobler were playing today, his entire paycheck would go to the league, and then he’d owe them money.”
Still, Williams and the Saints went way too far. They embarrassed the league. They embarrassed themselves. They peeled back the layers of pro football and exposed its psychopathic side, its culture of excess. For that, someone must pay, and pay heavily. But there also must be a complete accounting. Let’s get it all out on the table. How widespread are bounties? Universal? Something less than that? Or does the NFL just not want to know?
Williams will be demonized for this, and likely will receive a hefty fine and suspension, but the players are just as culpable. And frankly, it takes some of the steam out of their concussion suits — which claim the league hasn’t been doing enough to protect the players — when the players are targeting one another in games for the sheer murderous fun of it.
I’m reminded of a fine bit of mumbo-jumbo once uttered by linebacker James Harrison, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ bully. “I don’t want to injure anybody,” he said. “There’s a big difference between being hurt and being injured. You get hurt, you come back the next series or the next game. I try to hurt people.”
I’m also reminded of the night Joe Theismann’s leg was broken by the New York Giants. When it became clear what had happened, Lawrence Taylor, one of the gang who tackled him, put his hands on his helmet in despair. “This is not what I play football for,” he seemed to be saying. Would a Saint have done the same thing, or would he have been too busy trying to figure out what a broken leg was worth?