‘Bountygate’ And The Flaws In How We Think About Morality In The NFL

The New Orleans Saints’ bounty system scandal has been the biggest story of the offseason (well, maybe second biggest – some guy in Indianapolis has been in the news a bit too).

We’ve been subjected to hours of television and countless internet columns vilifying the players for participating, the coordinator (Gregg Williams) for organizing, and the general manager (Mickey Loomis) and head coach (Sean Payton) for allowing the program.


Gregg Williams and Sean Payton (Photo by Derick E. Hingle-US PRESSWIRE via NFLSpinZone.com)

Lost in all the high and mighty soapbox hand wringing is the fact that the bounty system did very little to alter play on the field.

Extreme NFL Violence Is Inevitable

Look, I think purposely trying to injure someone is bad.  Then again, much of what occurs in an NFL game is bad, at least morally.  If I dove at a guy’s knees as he walked into the gas station with the intent to injure him and keep him from living his life normally, that would make me a terrible person.  The NFL, for better or worse, operates with its own different set of morals.

On the field, it is up for debate whether purposefully trying to injure another person is right or wrong; but to suggest that most players aren’t trying to do just that, paid extra or not, is absurd.

Here we are entering murky territory, as any rational human being would say it’s wrong to try to maim another human, and if there is incentive to maim them, it might even be worse.  Those same rational humans still love when their favorite team’s linebacker lays a vicious hit on the other team’s ball carrier.

We have to accept that the NFL – and really, every sport – has its own moral code.  That’s a tough pill to swallow, as it forces us to suspend our own values for 3 hours every week during the fall and winter, but it’s a necessary mental shift if we want to continue to watch and cheer for football.

Roger Goodell has been trumpeting the player safety cause for a few years, with good reason.  We’re more knowledgeable now about the effects of repeated blows to the brain and sports medicine in general.  We understand – although not to the fullest extent yet – that the way guys have always played football is not conducive to great or even adequate physical and mental health over long periods of time.

Where I have a problem is with Goodell and others thinking that violence can be taken out of football.

Football is an exceedingly violent game at its very core.  As much as penalizing, fining, and suspending players can cut down on the major blows, violence and injuries are permanent components of football.  To pretend otherwise is a joke.  To propose an 18-game schedule while decrying violence in football and waving a flag for player safety is another joke.


Roger Goodell's actions seem contradictory if his goal is to truly improve player safety. (Photo credit: By derivative work: Kelly (talk): Staff Sgt. Beth Del Vecchio via Wikimedia Commons)

The Difference Between Hitting and Hurting (Is There One?)

So far, ex-players have mostly tried to either take the high road or tiptoe around the subject of intentionally hurting other players.  Some guys have said they would try to hit the opposing player hard, but would draw the line at targeting the head or knees or other sensitive areas that could lead to significant injury.  Others have said that they wanted the recipient of their hits to “feel it” or “remember it.”

What I haven’t heard a single player or former player say (although Tom Jackson almost gets there in this video before totally backtracking on his original point) is “Yes, every time I hit a guy I hit him as hard as I can and if I knock him out of the game, even better.”  I really haven’t even heard a player say (other than Marcellus Wiley and Mike Golic, who gave much more politically correct responses), “I hit guys as hard as I can every time and I don’t care whether they get injured.”

This is where I think we’ve missed the point – that players like to hurt other players, monetary incentive or not.

Of course guys are going to hit the opponent as hard as they can.  I highly doubt that they are concerned for the other player’s well-being when they do it, either.  Players have 40 years of highlight film celebrating massive hits.  The “Steel Curtain,” the Raiders of the 1970’s, Steve Atwater, Chuck Cecil, Ronnie Lott, among dozens of others have been lauded for their hard-edged play.

Guys are programmed to think that knocking someone out is a testament to their talent and toughness.


How often do you see a player hit someone viciously and legally, then bend over and check on the victim to see if they are hurt?  Conversely, how many times does a player drill someone and then stare that player down, flex or dance?

I think it’s safe to say that players enjoy hitting other players, and I don’t think most are terribly worried about the after-effects of those hits.

NFL Has Own Code Of Ethics and Morality

I know that there is no easy solution to this issue.  As ESPN’s Jemele Hill points out, Williams, Payton, and Loomis will all be punished severely, even though they are more guilty of having the audacity to perpetrate this scheme and cover it up when asked about it than they are of employing some diabolical new plan.

Those punishments won’t do a whole lot to affect the games on the field, though, because players are going to maul other players whenever the opportunity presents itself.  Guys aren’t going to have a $1500 bonus in the front of their mind as they measure another player for a big hit, since it already doesn’t seem like most of them have potential fines and suspensions that could cost tens of thousands of dollars or more in the front of their minds.

In the end, I look at the bounty system of the Saints the same way I look at a company with sales incentives.

If your job is to hit guys/sell a product, you’re generally going to do the best you can at that job to make sure you continue to be employed.  If your boss says, “knock that guy out of the game” or “sell this widget specifically and I’ll give you a couple extra bucks” (again, the bounties were pretty paltry compared to NFL salaries, so let’s assume the sales bonus is commensurate to the NFL bounty), you’re going to continue to do your job, but I don’t think you’re going to radically alter your work behavior.

Most people wouldn’t be outraged if the salesman did try a bit harder to sell that certain widget, especially if his methods are essentially within the confines of his company’s rules.  If there is a disciplinary system in place that would police the salesman from doing things that are unethical by his company’s standards – you know, like Goodell’s policy on head shots, low hits on quarterbacks and illegal plays for his company– then most people wouldn’t blame him for pushing the widget with the bonus attached to it.

The difference is that one of those jobs is to perform violence and the other is to sell something.  As much as we would like to pretend that real life morals can be transferred to sports and vice versa, that simply isn’t true.  Football is inherently violent, and we need to stop trying to convince ourselves that the values in our lives translate to that world of violence.


Follow me on Twitter @keithmullett


About Keith Mullett

Keith is an Ohio-based sports and pop culture junkie who began writing for MSF in June 2011. His ramblings about sports, music, movies and books can be further enjoyed by following him on Twitter @keithmullett.

In addition to his work for MSF, Keith operates a blog called Commercial Grade, in which he critiques television commercials from the perspective of the average viewer.


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