News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

March 25, 2012

MARK BENNETT: Hard hit: Cash rewards for game-ending hits on NFL players are not a part of the game

The moaning and whining miss the point.

Plenty of current NFL players and some just a few years past retirement expressed outrage at the severity of the penalties imposed by the league against the New Orleans Saints last week. Fans joined them. They argued that the Saints’ “bounty program” — a scheme of cash rewards for game-ending hits on targeted opposing players — is part of the game. “It’s football.”

Many older ex-players, or their widows and caretakers, take a different view. Some are dealing with permanent debilitation from the cumulative effect of jarring contact and concussions. The blows they absorbed were delivered legally, without a bonus system for knockouts. The idea of head-hunters getting an extra $1,500 to inflict the kind of injury that now keeps them bed-ridden would probably outrage a good number of those infirmed old-timers.

Still, there will be relentless complaints that Commissioner Roger Goodell’s sanctions against the Saints and crackdown against future bounty programs are further evidence of the league watering down the inherent violence of football. Along with rules protecting quarterbacks and wide receivers, the NFL’s bounty response, critics will say, “is ruining the game.”

The game.

“The game” actually has “a rulebook.” In the NFL Constitution and By-Laws and Collective Bargaining Agreement (that’s a signed, legal contract), Sections 9.1(C)(8) and 9.3(F) and (G) state this:

“No bonus or award may directly or indirectly be offered, promised, announced, or paid to a player for his or his team’s performance against a particular team or opposing player or a particular group thereof. No bonuses or awards may be offered or paid for on-field misconduct (for example, personal fouls to or injuries inflicted on opposing players).”

The Saints broke those rules. The scheme, according to NFL investigators, occurred from 2009 to 2011, with former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams as its organizer. Saints players paid into the bounty fund, as did Williams. A hit that knocked a player out of a game yielded $1,500. A “cart-off” resulting in an opponent being helped or carted off the field earned $1,000.

That practice is not the lone reason Goodell issued the harshest sanctions in league history. He suspended head coach Sean Payton for the entire 2012 season, without pay. That’s substantial, because Payton’s annual salary, according to the Shreveport Times, is $7.5 million. He banned Williams, now a St. Louis Rams assistant, indefinitely. The commissioner suspended Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis for the first eight regular-season games and assistant coach Joe Vitt for the first six. Goodell fined the club $500,000, and nixed its next two second-round draft picks. (No player penalties had been announced before the weekend.)

Why such stiff discipline?

Honesty. Responsibility. Accountability. Integrity. Or the lack thereof.

“A combination of elements made this matter particularly unusual and egregious,” Goodell said in a league-issued statement Wednesday. “When there is targeting of players for injury and cash rewards over a three-year period, the involvement of the coaching staff, and three years of denials and willful disrespect of the rules, a strong and last message must be sent that such conduct is totally unacceptable and has no place in the game.”

The league cited Payton for “falsely denying that the program existed” and then covering it up. The NFL said Williams admitted he purposely misled its investigators in 2010 when they began looking into the bounty allegations, and then allowed it to continue. Vitt, the league stated, “fabricated the truth” during the 2010 investigation.

As a result of the league’s findings, each of the 32 teams must certify by March 30 that it does not run a bounty pool. The team owners must sign that statement. The head coach must sign it. They’re accountable — to the opposing players, to the rules. Hard hits and violent collisions are indeed part of football. The term “hard hits” becomes “cheap shots” when the intent is to injure the other guy, instead of merely defeating him. Goodell’s action affirms that distinction.

The NFL has exhibited something Major League Baseball failed to show for years, while it ignored steroid abuse that gave users unfair advantages that reputable players didn’t have. That quality is integrity. By pretending the performance-enhancing drug consumption didn’t exist, big-league baseball now has a tainted recordbook, constant suspicion of current players, and superstars with Hall of Fame statistics who will never enter that Cooperstown shrine.

The same thing began brewing early this month when word of the Saints’ bounty program began to emerge. Players, fans, even former Colts coach Tony Dungy began to wonder if that hard-to-watch sandwiching of Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning in a 2006 game against the Washington Redskins (whose defensive coordinator then was Gregg Williams) was fueled by a bounty fund. Manning was folded backwards by Redskins defensive end Philip Daniels, peeling off Manning’s helmet in the process. Dungy traces to that game in ’06 the neck problems that led to Manning’s recent departure from the Colts.

Speaking on “Pro Football Talk Live” on March 5, Dungy said the bounty suspicions “could erode public confidence” unless the league cracks down.

It did. The league is apparently trying to live by a code of conduct and character, flawed as it is. Like hard, clean hits, accountability is good for “the game,” too.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@

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