Scandalgate! The Saints 'Bounty' System: The Crisis That's Got Nothing To Do With Anything

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - FEBRUARY 07: (FILE PHOTO) Tracy Porter #22 of the New Orleans Saints intercepts a ball and thrown by Peyton Manning #18 of the Indianapolis Colts and returns it for a touchdown in the fourth quarter during Super Bowl XLIV on February 7, 2010 at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. The New York Giants are scheduled to play the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI at Lucas Oil Stadium February 5, 2012 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The two teams last met in the Super Bowl in 2008, where the Giants defeated the Patriots to win Super Bowl XLII. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

The NFL confirmed last week the New Orleans Saints bounty program, and with scandal in the air, the league is awash in a sea of soul-searching about the ethics in New Orleans. But why ignore the heart of the story?

The Saints maintained a "bounty program" under Gregg Williams where players were rewarded for hits that injured opposing players, at least one outsider (Mike Ornstein) contributed money to the pool, and players themselves contributed to the pool. But you know all that.

And if you didn't know the specifics before last Friday, you couldn't have been that surprised to find out that something like the Saints bounty system exists. Football players get paid to attack offensive football players, and if the implications of that arrangement are generally unstated, the execution's the same with or without an extra $1,500 coming from a pool.

When Roger Goodell first heard of all this, apparently he said, "God forbid this is true. This will be earth-shattering." Earth-shattering to whom? The last 18 people on earth who believe the NFL's a paragon of integrity and clean play?

Think back to 2010, when the Associated Press wrote, "Fumbles transform the NFL into the WWE. When a football hits the ground, players are known to do whatever it takes to get it. Nothing is off limits. Eye-gouging. Crotch-grabbing. Biting. Kicking. Punching. Choking."

When we see ex-players talk about what goes on at the bottom of piles -- with guys pulling, poking, and punching each other -- we glorify the awesomeness of the chaos, telling ourselves, "That's football. The big nasties don't mess around."

Bart Scott, an active linebacker, called the tradition "sacred" and said, "You're not supposed to talk about it."

In the same article, Browns players mention that Gregg Williams' Saints defense played dirty in a pileup, and Cleveland's Nick Sorensen said of the Saints' tactics, "It's a part of the game. It's happened before and I'm sure it will happen again. I had heard of eye-gouging before, I just had never experienced it. I was a little ticked off but that's just part of it."

So, given the context here, it's a little insulting when Sports Illustrated's Joe Posnanski muses, "This bounty hunting business seems to me to be unethical and immoral on about a thousand different levels."

Couldn't you just as easily replace "bounty hunting" with "football" in that sentence? And what's the difference between what happens to every running back at the bottom of every NFL pile and whatever happened to somebody playing against the Saints over the past few years?

Meanwhile, Grantland's Charles Pierce writes:

Players were paid $1,000 for a "knockout hit" and another $1,000 if a player were to be carried off the field. These events were not incidental to the playing of the game. They were an essential part of it. The players who participated in the program did not do so accidentally. The coaches who designed the program did not do it without knowing full well what it entailed, including the possibility of retaliation if the story ever got out, and a subsequent football arms race that would end up with someone dead on the field.

Okay, but: WHAT IS FOOTBALL IF NOT AN ARMS RACE?

Isn't this the game where players play hurt for fear of losing their job if they sit out too long? The game where every inch -- or, say, a star player's injury -- is the difference between winning and losing? It's hard to believe a few thousand dollars makes one team hit harder than the next.

The sweeping naivete is kind of unbelievable. For instance, Eli Manning talked about the Saints bounties this week and said, “It’s not good for football and can’t be a part of football.” Of course, a few months ago we were talking about the Giants defenders who freely admitted to targeting Kyle Williams because of his concussion history. That began with coaches, too. Was it somehow more defensible because players weren't getting paid $1,500 for the hits?

If you love football despite the nasty underbelly that's been exposed over the past ten years, then that's fine. I go back and forth between reveling in the sheer insanity of a sport where players put $10,000 on a table and say "Go Get Brett Favre," and hating the same sport because of the way it turns its stars into a blubbering mess almost as a rule.

Conscious hypocrisy is the best that football fans can hope for.

If you hate football full-time, and you can't stomach the idea of defensive players openly targeting guys on the other side, that's fine, too. But this "scandal" changes nothing, and pretending it's scandalous at all is disingenuous and naive at best, and more likely a case of the NFL and its attendant media deliberately distracting people from the real story.

Football is football, and football players by definition get paid hundreds of thousands of dollars each week to beat the crap out of other football players. Coaches, too.

The Saints bounty system just properly enunciated an arrangement that's been true in spirit for decades. Football players and coaches will do whatever it takes to win, even if it's ugly and possibly immoral. There's a reason every NFL locker room is closed to outsiders.

If you want to get sanctimonious about the whole thing, go for it. But don't waste your breath and our time by pretending the problems in pro football have anything to do with the New Orleans Saints.

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