NFL bounties amount to incentive system run amok

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To Hall of Fame defensive back Ronnie Lott, the thousands of dollars New Orleans Saints players were paid under their bounty system from 2009-11 is not all that different from the helmet stickers handed out at lower levels of the game.

Little rewards for big plays are as much a part of football as runs and passes.

“I never played the game to take away somebody’s livelihood. Have I hurt people? Yes. I got paid to make interceptions. I got paid to cause fumbles. And I got paid to make big hits,” said Lott, who was with the 49ers, Raiders and Jets during his NFL career from 1981-94.

“It goes back to when I was 10. Somebody said that if you did one of those things, you would get a sticker on your helmet. In college, they gave you that recognition if you did well,” Lott said in a telephone interview Monday. “So, no. I’m not really surprised by it.”

Nor, it seems, should anyone.

“The fact that guys in a football locker room would talk about and reward each other when they take one of their opponents out of the game _ that’s not surprising at all. It probably happens from the high school level on up. This is not an odd thing. Now the cash rewards and the coach approval? That formalizes it and takes it to another level,” said Jay Coakley, professor emeritus in the sociology department at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.

“But we shouldn’t be surprised at all that the football culture would give rise to someone wanting to take another player out, even if there weren’t something extra on the line,” Coakley added. “That’s just obvious.”

Commissioner Roger Goodell summoned former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to meet with NFL investigators Monday to discuss whether he also offered bounties while working for other teams. Goodell was not at the meeting.

After the league made its investigation public Friday, Williams admitted to, and apologized for, running a bounty pool of up to $50,000 over the last three seasons, rewarding players for knocking targeted opponents out of games. The league now wants to know whether Williams _ who recently left the Saints to become defensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams _ ran a similar scheme while a head coach or assistant with the Titans, Redskins, Jaguars and Bills.

Current Redskins linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, who played under Williams in Washington, said a player could get rewarded for knocking a player out of a game with a clean hit, but only after the fact _ not as a pre-planned “bounty.” Sometimes players wrote each other checks for such plays.

“It wasn’t always Coach Williams” who paid up, Alexander said.

Several players described their profession as ripe for this to happen: a violent workplace with plenty of cash floating around.

“Everybody knows those things have been around. Some people just unfortunately got caught with their hand in the cookie jar,” said Kyle Turley, an offensive lineman from 1998-07 for the Saints, Rams and Chiefs and one of hundreds of former players who are plaintiffs in concussion-related lawsuits against the league. “It happens a lot on special teams, where they prey on those young guys _ the `expendables’ as I like to call them _ who want some extra money or want to prove their worth so they can stick around longer.”

Think of it as an incentive system run amok.

“A lot of business firms try that sort of thing, whether it’s for rewarding high performance among employees or sales quotes or innovations,” University of Chicago sports economist Allen Sanderson said. “This isn’t all that much different, other than that it involves a little more pain and suffering.”

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