Why Cheap Shots are Worse than Cheating
In 2007, the New England Patriots were handed a record punishment from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, the loss of a valuable first round draft pick and fines of $500,000 each for the team and head coach Bill Belichick, for violating fair competition rules. Yesterday, the league office upped the stakes, hitting the New Orleans Saints with a blow as vicious as those had placed bounties on. The Saints were outed for a three year bounty program in which defensive players were paid bonuses (bounties) for laying big hits on key offensive players on the opposing teams. The bonuses were often tied to causing the targeted player to miss plays or leave the game with some kind of injury. The Saints now face the stiffest penalty in league history, forfeiting second round draft picks in the 2012 and 2013 drafts, a $500,000 fine on the team, suspending team general manager Mickey Loomis for eight games, and suspending head coach Sean Payton for the entire 2012 season (costing him his $7.5M annual income). The lingering question is which violation was worse…to find the answer we need only follow the money.
The Patriots had allegedly videotaped opposing team’s defensive signals, allowing them to study the signals against game footage, breaking the code and allowing them to know their opponents game plan. The worst of the allegations involved videotaping the St. Louis Rams, their Super Bowl opponent in 2001, during their final walkthroughs on the day before the championship game. The Patriots violated the integrity of the sport, gaining an illegal advantage which likely swung the outcome of games (they defeated the Rams by three points, bottling the league’s most prolific offense). Every sport has its own unwritten code of conduct (baseball has tacitly approved of teams stealing signals and signs for a century now) and much of the NFL’s dominance in American sport can be traced to its popularity in Vegas casinos. The integrity of the competition cuts to the heart of the sport.
Why then, would the league react so harshly to a program which essentially involved players doing what they were going to do anyway (make hard tackles)? Worse, why the outrage over players attempting to make big hits which, until very recently, were the most celebrated (and marketed) aspect of the sport – ESPN ran an entire segment during its NFL coverage called Jacked Up, in which violent hits were glorified to the chorus of panelist deriding the recipient of the shot with a You Got Jacked Up catchphrase.
This attitude has devastating consequences when misapplied by inferior egos. But the NFL is not teaching us about morality today; it is protecting its financial well-being. As a culture we have a lot yet to learn about dignity…
The reason is that over the past five years we have learned a lot about brain trauma. Specifically, we have learned a lot about what happens when you subject human brains to hundreds and thousands of subconcussive shots. An alarming number of former football players develop dementia in their 40s and 50s, showing level of decay typically seen in 80 year olds. While today’s stars are paid tens of millions of dollars and have incredible access to health care, the average career in the NFL is approximately three years and never includes a contract in excess of $1M annually. Worse, many of those players find themselves unable to afford the insurance they need or the medical bills their playing days have left them with. The league is improving it care of former players, but only after numerous lawsuits and political leveraging.
The heart of the matter in the Saints severe punishment is bounty programs have been common in the league since its inception and they provide sensational, smoking gun anecdotal evidence in the court of public opinion. The league and its teams have a history of encouraging and rewarding the risky behavior which leads to greater levels of brain damage. The lawsuits are piling up and the litigation and remedy are increasingly expensive. The NFL is also aggressively expanding its popularity among non-traditional fans, especially women, who do not applaud the game’s inherent violence. Where the stereotypical fan (and a majority of the players) shrug at the Saints conduct and shout obscenities at the Patriots cheating, the NFL’s target growth demographics are more concerned with player health and safety, especially when their young boys idolize the players and are eager to play youth football.
Both scandals involve lapses in ethical judgment. Competitive integrity is threatened in both cases. There is no evidence Saints players were out to permanently injure players, as some of the more reactionary voices have decried, but clearly they sought to achieve a competitive advantage by removing a player for a few plays or the remainder of the game. The Patriots blatantly skirted the rules to eliminate competitive balance. Neither speak well of a win-at-all-costs culture we have created and indulge in. American is steeped in the culture of individual success, an American Exceptionalism, as the phrase coined by Joseph Stalin has come to define. This attitude has devastating consequences when misapplied by inferior egos. But the NFL is not teaching us about morality today; it is protecting its financial well-being. As a culture we have a lot yet to learn about dignity…