On one hand, the story that has roiled the NFL since Friday is a complex study in meaning, intent and extent. On the other hand, it's a simple open-and-shut case of the New Orleans Saints continuing to violate league rules after being warned to cease and desist.
The Saints, rightfully so, will pay a heavy price for their cash rewards program. It doesn't matter if similar programs exist on every team to varying degrees. It doesn't matter if pay-for-performance kitties have been around for decades. And it doesn't matter if the Saints' opponents suffered no long-term injuries as a result of the policy.
The league said "quit it" and New Orleans refused to comply. Stiff punishment is warranted.
And thus concludes the black-and-white portion of this topic. The rest is a mess of multi-hued grays, with subliminal messages like "hypocrisy" and "naivety" flashing across your mind's eye.
Part of the problem resides in the sport itself. Football requires participants to suspend conventional wisdom about self-preservation, namely that you shouldn't run into other human beings at full speed, and certainly not repeatedly. Those who master the art can earn college scholarships before proceeding to pro careers and fat paychecks.
Defensive players on the Saints and other teams are paid to hit often and hit hard, in hopes of separating opponents from the ball. If opponents are separated from their senses as well, that comes with the territory. As long as it's done cleanly, within the rules and spirit of the game, there's nothing wrong.
For instance, take the play in which former Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner was blasted by former Saints defensive end Bobby McCray in a 2010 playoff game. McCray unloaded on an unsuspecting Warner, who broke the cardinal rule of keeping one's head on a swivel during interception returns. The hit was vicious, but clean, and essentially sent Warner into retirement.
Which brings us to the irony, contradictions and fine line between bounties, game balls and big hits.
If Warner pops up, seemingly unaffected, and continues to play, McCray accepts hearty congratulations from teammates. Coach Sean Payton might mention McCray during the postgame speech in the locker room and award him a game ball.
But Warner lay there, dazed and confused, which automatically short-circuits celebrations by the defensive players. They typically want to "hurt" opponents, as in making them feel it when they're hit, but not really "hurt" them, as in leaving them with a serious injury.
However, now that we've learned of the Saints' "bounty program," in which players allegedly received $1,500 for "knockouts" and $1,000 for "cart-offs," with payouts doubling or tripling during the playoffs, McCray's hit looks questionable.
Was he just making a clean, hard football play? Or was he intentionally trying to force Warner from the game?
As in other fields and situations, the appearance of a conflict of interest is as bad as an actual conflict of interest. That's why the NFL prohibits bounties/bonuses, even though they arguably have little impact on game results or injury rates.
"Trying to legislate intent is very, very hard," former Baltimore coach Brian Billick said Tuesday on the Colin Cowherd Show. "But clearly, the commissioner wants to shoot that shot over the bow and make sure everyone knows the league is watching and not going to let it happen."
Players within teams always have found ways to motivate and reward each other for significant plays such as big hits or turnovers. If the big hit caused a player to exit the game or be removed on a stretcher, so be it.
But faced with a slew of lawsuits as it makes a push to increase player safety, the NFL can't sanction a system that specifically rewards knockouts and cart-offs.
You might call that semantics, but I call it common sense.
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