They have been part of football for as long as the game has been played. They have ridden the evolutionary wave from leather helmets and single wings to polyurethane shells and four wide. They have been so ingrained in the culture that no one gave them a second look.
Until recently. Now the NFL is in a new-age bind thanks to those age-old truths — bounties and concussions.
After accepting them with winks and nods all these years, the league has launched an all-out assault to eliminate them.
It's the right thing to do, even though it appears self-serving and hypocritical to some critics. New Orleans Saints fans, in particular, contend that their team was unfairly punished for a "bounty" program that has existed on some level throughout football. On Tuesday, we learned that offensive players could be as guilty as defensive players.
Former All-Pro receiver Cris Carter said he used the measure to protect himself during his 16-year NFL career. "First time I've ever admitted it, but I put a bounty on guys before," Carter said on ESPN's Hill & Schlereth Show. "... If a guy tries to take me out, a guy takes a cheap shot on me? I put a bounty on him right now!"
He said former Pro Bowl linebacker Bill Romanowski once threatened to hurt him. So Carter did what he thought was necessary. "I put a little change on his head before the game," he said. "Protect myself. Protect my family. That's the league that I grew up in."
He said bounties weren't intended as incentive to injure other players, but instead were "based on protection, or a big hit, excitement, or for helping your team win. It wasn't to maim or hurt the dude," Carter said.
Either way, commissioner Roger Goodell doesn't want that aspect of the league to continue. His chances of success are much better in that quest than in his battle against concussions. Once referred to in benign terms such as dingers, stingers and bell-ringers, they're now called what they are: traumatic brain injuries.
While the league tries to address the issue from this point forward, it must protect its rear flank. More than 1,500 former players have filed lawsuits claiming that the NFL withheld information on the dangers of concussions. Former Indianapolis Colts QB Art Schlichter isn't suing - yet. But he is blaming repeated head injuries for his gambling addiction and 30 years of criminal activity.
"At least now, he understands there is a reason for his behavior," public defender Steven C. Nolder said last week when Schlichter was sentenced to nearly 11 years in prison for scamming 55 participants in what authorities called a million-dollar sports ticket scheme. Nolder said mental-health specialists found "significant deficits" in the frontal lobes of Schlichter's brain, most likely caused by 15 concussions he suffered while playing high school and college football.
That's a nightmare scenario for Goodell and the NFL, linking football not only to diminished faculties and debilitating injuries, but degenerate tendencies as well. If he ever fessed up, O.J. Simpson might use it as an excuse, too.
Bounties are no joking matter, but they're much easier to contend with compared to concussions. The Saints' penalties should serve as an effective deterrent, or at least lead players elsewhere to keep their mouths shut. The practice can continue unabated for years and we'll never know unless someone blows the whistle.
Conversely, concussions can occur on any play and be hard to conceal. Lying prone on the field, or wobbling after arising, is usually a dead giveaway. With former stars such as Kurt Warner and Troy Aikman expressing reservations about their kids playing the sport, the prospect of head injuries is a threat to the NFL's future - starting at the pee-wee level and working its way up.
Yes, concussions and bounties have been part of football's furniture forever. But they're extremely ugly based on today's aesthetics. Standards and tastes have changed, and the NFL must follow suit.
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