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Commentary: Bounty hunters in New Orleans

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 15, 2012 - There is a concise explanation of our continuing need for regulations, rules, referees and the red tape these restrictions on human freedom entail. It can be rather succinctly summarized in two words: People cheat.

Whether people cheat aggressively, blatantly, coyly or slyly, the cheating is a reliable constant of the existential predicament. And it takes place at all levels of the socio-economic pyramid. If you doubt the latter assertion, simply enter “Illinois prison population” into your internet search engine and see who pops up.

Of course, if there were no rules, it would impossible to cheat because everything would be permissible. But that state of affairs equates to chaos. How could one possibly determine which man were the better boxer, for instance, if one of the combatants brought a gun into the ring? The rules evolved to satisfy our innate thirst for fairness while constraining competition within humane confines. 

Presently, the National Football League is reeling over revelations that defensive coordinator Gregg Williams operated an illegal bounty program during his tenure with the New Orleans Saints. Long-suffering St. Louis football fans will be unsurprised to learn that the culprit was recently hired to run the defense for the Rams.

When discussing this troubling matter, we can dispense with the usual “allegedly” and “reportedly” qualifications because Williams has already confessed. Once the charges were made public, he immediately admitted that he engineered the scheme and knew that it was illegal while doing so. The NFL’s report is supposed to be 50,000 (sic!) pages long. One may thus infer that the investigation was exhaustive.

Subsequent to release of the Saints’ story, former players came forward to report that Williams had operated similar bounty programs while coaching in Washington, Buffalo and Tennessee, thus lending credence to the theory that most people don’t get caught on their first offense.

League rules specifically prohibit cash payments to players, even seemingly innocuous bonuses for exceptional play. The ban was imposed to promote financial transparency and competitive integrity. Under terms of the collective bargaining agreement, each team has to operate under a salary cap, which is the maximum allowable payroll for a given year. Obviously, under-the-table cash would subvert this arrangement.

Bonuses can also provide a perverse incentive for a player to act against his team’s best interest. Consider a fourth down situation in which Team A has the ball on its 40-yard line as an example.

It’s late in the first half, so A’s coach decides to gamble and has his quarterback throw a deep pass, which a defensive back from Team B has a chance to intercept in traffic at the five. The smart play is to knock the ball to the ground because his team would then take over at the original line of scrimmage, 55 yards up-field.

If the defender intercepts, he’ll be tackled immediately, leaving his team with lousy field position. But if he doesn’t make the catch, he loses the bonus he’s been promised for an interception. You can see the problem — the bonus has created a conflict between individual reward and collective success.

As described, Williams’ bounty system took bonuses to the next level. The program devolved into a cross between an incentive pool and a mob hit.  Specific opposing players were targeted for elimination each week. Cash was paid for a big hit that took the target from the game (a “knockout”) or for rendering him unable to leave the field under his own power (a “cart-off”). 

Local favorite Kurt Warner fell victim to Williams’ bounty thugs when quarterbacking the Arizona Cardinals in his final pro game. I cringed when I saw the gratuitous hit but at the time, attributed it to overzealousness prompted by the pressure of the play-offs. Little did I know that Kurt took the field that day with a bounty on his head. (Check it out on YouTube.) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pC1T1tAbA4s

As of this writing, Commissioner Roger Goodell is contemplating appropriate discipline for the violations. One of his problems figures to be scope. How far do you take this thing? Are the players as guilty as the coaches? After all, they’re all grown men and the league issues annual reminders that bounties are strictly forbidden.

There are already reports that Saints head coach Sean Peyton and general manager Mickey Loomis have apologized to team owner Tom Benson and vowed that “this will never happen again.” These men failed to stop the bounty program even after they learned the league was investigating it. Are superiors who turn a blind eye to the misdeeds of subordinates equally culpable?

If so, where does this leave the Rams? Though the team was not implicated in the actual scandal, it will probably need a new defensive coordinator for next season at the very least. And what of their new head coach, the much sought-after Jeff Fisher? He not only hired Williams to come here but also was the head coach of the Oilers/Titans while Williams was on the team’s staff from 1994-2000. What, if anything, did he know about all this?

The league is currently defending itself against a bevy of lawsuits filed by hundreds of former players claiming that they were never informed of the long-term hazards of multiple concussions. Commissioner Goodell has countered by launching a major player safety initiative. Now, he learns that some teams play defense using techniques perfected by Murder Inc. Apparently, there’s more than one way to get a headache in the NFL…

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