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Column: Punishing Williams won’t end real problem

- Associated Press - Monday, March 5, 2012

What Gregg Williams did wasn't all that different from what football coaches have been doing since the game was invented. He just kept detailed records.

Violence is the coin of the realm in the NFL, but based on the headlines, you would think targeting players to gain a competitive advantage _ or to pocket a few extra bucks _ was something Williams thought up during stints in Buffalo and Washington, then perfected as defensive coordinator in New Orleans. No.

Think back six weeks to the days after the Giants beat the 49ers in the NFC championship game, in part because San Francisco return man Kyle Williams bungled one punt that yielded a touchdown and fumbled a second that set up New York's game-winning field goal in overtime. In the locker room afterward, two Giants special teams players boasted they knew chances were especially good they could separate Williams from the football _ and maybe his senses, too.

"The thing is, we knew he had four concussions, so that was our biggest thing, was to take him outta the game," said Jacquian Williams, who forced the second fumble.

"He's had a lot of concussions," echoed Devin Thomas, who recovered both fumbles. "We were just like, `We gotta put a hit on that guy.'"

No one asked Jacquian Williams or Thomas how they knew about Kyle Williams' concussions, so either they scoured the NFL's weekly injury reports, or more likely, that very topic came up for discussion in defensive meetings the week before the game. When reporters later caught up with some of their teammates, they got the equivalent of blank stares.

"I never had that conversation," defensive end Justin Tuck said.

"In our meetings, we do not talk about it," concurred linebacker Michael Boley. "Concussions are a big deal and we don't talk about it at all."

Any lingering questions or outrage melted away when NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said officials reviewed film from the game and determined "there was no conduct by the Giants of any kind that would suggest an effort to injure Kyle Williams in any way." And that was that.

Everybody is talking about targeting players now because the league has 18,000 emails and 50,000 documents revealing how extensive a bounty program Williams was running. A number of current and former players have weighed in, most acknowledging that bounty offers were commonplace on their teams _ though not nearly as organized and usually tied to plays, like creating a turnover, rather than players. A few said targeting specific opponents never came up because a fat paycheck incentive was enough to hit anybody in a different jersey as often and as hard as they could.

Because there's a considerable paper trail, drawing a line on what kind of violence the NFL will tolerate is easy. Almost too easy. Commissioner Roger Goodell will hand out large fines and lengthy suspensions to Williams, some players and perhaps Saints coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis. Then he'll be applauded for upholding the integrity of the game and go back to presiding over a business that generates $9 billion in revenue annually by selling violence of the sanctioned variety.

The NFL's biggest problem isn't Williams, or even the informal bounty schemes or side bets hatched between players whose lockers happen to be next to each other. It's not the quiet discussions that circulate on occasion in film rooms or even the over-the-top motivational speeches that loudmouth coaches like Williams deliver. The problem is the game itself.

Contact isn't a byproduct of football, it's the point. If cash makes a few players more willing to take crazy risks, or more purposeful in how they target an opponent, there are still plenty of guys who simply think of it as part of the job. The league already has its hands full trying to determine intent when there's no evidence that money changed hands, reviewing games from every weekend and occasionally applying penalties and fines after the fact. That's only going to get tougher as players get bigger and stronger.

If anything, the Williams case is little more than a distraction from the larger debate about player safety. It was one thing to write off career-ending hits to the knees and worse as occupational hazards because even players forced out of the game still faced the prospect of more good days ahead than bad. Concussions have changed the equation in the most insidious way, upping the ante without disclosing the real cost until it's too late. And the money in pro football is so good now _ even without bonuses from unscrupulous coaches _ that few people even bother to tote up the risk.

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.

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