Monday Morning View: Bounties Have No Place in the NFL

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If you’ve been away this weekend or cooped up in a hole to avoid the weather, you might have missed the big story that hit all the media outlets on Friday afternoon. I first found out through our friends at CheeseheadTV that the New Orleans Saints have been found guilty of offering bounties (or payouts) to defensive players as a performance incentive. It wasn’t only for interceptions or fumble recoveries, though. No, they were getting rewarded for injuring other players.

I, for one, found this appalling.

Now, I’m no fool. I am well aware that the rules of the league are often broken to gain a competitive advantage. And some people in the CheeseheadTV comments section feigned a sarcastic state of shock in light of this news.

But what really got to me were the comments and tweets around the internet that this is commonplace and not that big of a deal. The only reason it’s a huge story is because the Saints actually got caught. Some people likened it to the use of performances enhancing drugs (PEDs), in that it happens all the time, yet only a few are ever found out.

There was even an article penned by Matt Bowen for the Chicago Tribune, titled “Bounties part of game across the NFL.” In the article, Bowen shares his experience as a player who was coached by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams with the Washington Redskins. Daily player fines for breaking the rules or miscues during practice would be gathered and “stashed away at the team facility.”

Then, after the coaches reviewed the game film, the money would be handed back out for things like “big hits, clean hits by the rule book.” Extra cash was earned for interceptions, sacks, and forced fumbles, and during the playoffs, the bounty rewards would increase.

“I ate it up,” admits Matt Bowen.

And really, who wouldn’t? Cash incentives for performance can be a big motivator. It is a classic case of B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning. (Sorry, it’s the teacher in me.) Behaviors are supported through positive and negative reinforcers, as well as positive and negative punishment. In this case, breaking the rules and mental errors during practice are met with negative punishments (fines), while exceptional performances are met with positive reinforcers (bounties).

During the season, we saw an example of this with our own Green Bay Packers wide receivers. Jason Wilde, the Packers beat writer for ESPN Wisconsin, wrote an article back in October explaining the system. For every dropped ball by a wide receiver in a game, they would have to buy the whole group a $100 Best Buy gift card.

Although, as tweeted by Wilde on Friday, “they had to cease that, too.”

To be honest, I don’t think most fans have a problem with incentives for performance, whether negative or positive. Having to shell out the money for a bunch of gift cards because you dropped a pass is pretty harmless. And being rewarded for a sack, an interception, or even a big hit doesn’t have the ring of foul play. No, the big problem with this whole situation is offering a cash incentive for injuring another player.

I’m sorry, Matt Bowen. I know you played in the NFL and I didn’t. I know that you understand the atmosphere of the game better than I do. But I just don’t agree that this is something to be accepted in professional sports.

“I’m not saying it’s right. Or ethical,” writes Bowen in his article. “But the NFL isn’t little league football with neighborhood dads playing head coach. This is the business of winning. If that means stepping over some line, you do it.”

Wow. So it’s okay to break the rules as long as you win?

What is the purpose of teaching children good sportsmanship if it is thrown out the window once they’ve grown up? If we want our young athlete to eventually make it into the big leagues, then by your standards he would better served by having a bounty system in place at every level. That way by the time they finish college, they are ready for anything. They’ll make the big plays and do whatever they need to do to win, even if it means “stepping over some line.”

Can’t you see what’s wrong with this?

Besides, these are professionals we are talking about. It is their job to play this game hard and give it their best. Is that not motivation enough? Winning games, making it to the Super Bowl, getting more playing time, landing a big contract . . . is that not enough incentive to perform well? Or are you telling me that you need these bounties to be a great player?

Not to mention the fact that players get paid hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars each year to play the game. Apparently that’s not enough for some.

I get it. This happens all the time. But that alone does not make it right, and it certainly does not mean it should be accepted. If the culture of the NFL has to change, then I am all for it. Giving money to players for injuring others is a despicable practice. These are people’s lives we’re talking about. Earning a few thousand bucks for breaking a guy’s ankles and ending his career is sickening.

The reinforcement of behavior through rewards and punishments is something we experience in all walks of life, but bounties for harming other players have no place in the NFL. There is simply no excuse for it.

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Chad Toporski, a Wisconsin native and current Pittsburgh resident, is a writer for AllGreenBayPackers.com. You can follow Chad on twitter at @ChadToporski

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  • JimR_in_DC

    Rewarding players for excellent performance, whatever the metric it’s based on is a good thing. However, providing any type of reward for injuring an opposing player is reprehensible.

  • Zack

    personally I would really like to see an example made of this organization. Whoever was the top man on this should be removed from his position and banned for life and anyone else who it can be proved that had participated in this should serve some kind of suspension. maybe an eight to twelve game suspension with crazy fines… A slap on the wrist won’t do in this case. It’s sickening that this crap is going on in the NFL. I would say they should ban everyone involved for life but I know that won’t happen even though it should.

    • Chad Toporski

      If the NFL wants to stop this kind of practice, then a harsh punishment is absolutely necessary. I was told once that a punishment should be as severe as necessary to keep the behavior from recurring. They’ll never rid the league of this, but it can be minimized.

  • Ron LC

    I explained my view in a lengthy comment earlier. A formal incentive that encourages/requires injury should be dealt with harshly.

    An informal reward between teamates that encourages better performance has been going on forever. Dropped passes, hold a player under a standard like yards per gsme and other casual bets will be eliminated by rule because of NO. That’s too bad.

    Then we have the incentives built into contracts. Doubt they’ll be eliminated. They’re for positive things, you say. Are they? I’d like to see Harrison’s contract to make sure.

    • Chad Toporski

      Contract incentives are an interesting layer to this story. What is also interesting is how the IRS views these bounties and whether taxes are expected to be paid on them. Because I’m sure most (if not all) of these go unreported on tax returns.

  • http://Orlando simzap

    Sharper is a perfect example of why Williams paid bounties . Before Sharper got to the Saints he was an all-pro but never known as a big hitter. Then the week before the champioship game he’s mouthing off about knocking Farve out of the game. And, you did see him hitting Farve late as part of a team effort to injure him. I’m sure Sharper would have played hard in any case but not with the intent to harm. Farve’s career could have ended dozens times in his career if this was a leaguewide deal. Thankfully, there are very few players want to injure other players like Tatum and Sapp.

  • Tarynfor 12

    I don’t make the money these players do and I and sincerely hope no one I know would intentionally try to injure someone for what…$i,ooo.oo-$1,500.oo or yet wait for the pot to build and then attempt it.
    I get the bonus for bettr play but a deep psychological testing needs to be done on the players that got excited by the low end money offered compared to what their earning to do malicious harm to a fellow player in the name of a “GAME”.
    I will wonder what is going on in the mind of the player that gives the “make me cringe” hit on another…celebrating his bravado or chest pounding as the pot winner.

    • Chad Toporski

      It is a sick mentality. Of course, I’m sure that wanting to be part of the group also plays into it. Who wants to be the odd man out in the locker room?

  • Rick

    Lets not be naïve about this guys and gals, there have been bounties and extra “trophies” awarded since the game started in the 20s. No sacks in a playoff game got Marino to pay for a O lineman dinner with all the extras and drinks. There has been the famous hitlist Sharpie numbers on a defensive players hand towel.

    The money is not the incentive it is the recognition of going in front of your guys, your teammates, and being recognized by the group. Ambition is the greatest slave maker. Sharper did show pop and hit skills that he rarely used earlier. They brought it out of him. The problem is that it went from being friendly incentives between players to becoming a locker room culture organized by Williams. When warned it appears they all winked and nodded and still carried on.

    With the 35 active concussion lawsuits against the NFL they can not officially allow ANY of this to be condoned. They can’t be held accountable that they allow EXTRA targeting in an already violent sport.

    However in college we did very similar things and the players in the NFL would shock me if they did not continue it as well.

    So what do I see, the redskins pay a fine for their conduct in allowing it 9 years ago. About $100,000 sounds right.

    Sean Payton – Saints Head coach-is suspended for half a year without pay. That means no contact with the team.

    The Saints will be fined the max at $500,000. I am unsure of loss of draft picks as the removal of Payton will be a performance disadvantage for the Saints and the NFLPA could imply it is an unfair reduction in opportunities of new players.

    Gregg Williams – Rams DC- will be suspended without pay for next season OR he can resign with out pay and stay out of NFL for 1 calendar year.

    • CSS

      Nobody is ‘naive’ that bounty programs exist, but any reasonable fan (and many past and current players commenting over the weekend) are appalled that a bounty would include ‘kill shots’, ‘cart offs’ and ‘knock outs’ by any means.

      It’s crossing a line and goes beyond incentive when you’re threatening a colleagues career.

      • Rick

        I call hypocrite BS on them then.

        Football is violent and you can get a concussion or blow out a knee and never play again on ANY play. You have to be aware of what is going on to the best of your ability.

        Chop blocks and ZBS schemes threaten D linemen knees every snap and they are legal plays. I agree I don’t want some one swinging a crowbar but the NFL even has sold BIG HITS Videos and profited from them. I understand to cover themselves legally this can be allowed by coaches especially when told to not do it.

        In college on Defense, I wanted to hit the receiver so hard he won’t dare come over the middl again. Am I gonna cheap shot him, no, but I am not about to lay off either. If I had made pro I can only imagine it being worse.

        As I said this is something between us players. At USC and I hear at other schools on friday nights would watch the top hits from last game and would bring to the front the players that did them. The coaches were aware obviously but were not in charge of it.

        To be shocked over “kill shots” “cart offs” or “knock outs” is not really understanding what you are seeing on a Saturday or Sunday on a football field. Do I want people injured, first response is always no, but after 44 minutes in a tight game and I can drive the receiver into the dirt extra hard, he is going down. Welcome to football.

        I would not recommend most kids to play even in high school. It is damaging to the body, trust me, but if you can handle the pain and love it. Game on.

        This is a legal liability for the NFL otherwise it is a non story.

        • CSS

          “To be shocked over “kill shots” “cart offs” or “knock outs” is not really understanding what you are seeing on a Saturday or Sunday on a football field.”

          Suffice to say I have a pretty good grasp on the game. Yes, it’s violent. Yes, I know I’m likely to see violent collisions with intent. But you seem to have left out the, ‘by any means’ I clearly wrote.

          I’m all for clean play that results in a hard hit. That’s now what Williams or his players were doing. You can be tough (as you’re clearly trying really, really hard to portray) and still play a clean game.

          That’s not what Williams is advocating.

          • Rick

            We agree. Clean hits and a little grey area hard hitting. Not a blatant cheap shot or “by any means”. I don’t want some one rolling purposely into a QBs legs after the play and that being condoned. I guess I am saying it galls me that former players act like they knew nothing of bounteis when on TV.

            As for tough. younger I would have said heck yes,I dominated in High School, I made it to college. But reality is that I could not even manage a training camp spot in the NFL. Those guys are the best of the best.

            I say the commish has to come down hard because this can not be tolearted by the business of the NFL. To much at risk money wise.

            Behind the scenes this will probably happen betwen players which is where it belongs if it is going to keep happening.

            • Chad Toporski

              Teaching kids to be tough is one thing, teaching them to take other players out as a strategy for winning is something completely different.

  • Pete Kliman

    Well done, Chad. Sadly, the officials did not do their job in stopping that action that season. There is plenty of evidence where QB’s were getting hit after they handed off. In an option type offense that is fine.

    • Chad Toporski

      Thanks, Pete. I admit, I have to look at that 2009 NFC Championship game through a different lens now. Did we all know the Saints wanted to put some hits on Favre? Sure. Did we think they would put a $10,000 price on taking him out of the game? Perhaps the most cynical of us…

  • Mojo

    Imagine you’ve trained a good part of your life, gotten in the best shape possible and though this hard work and determination, along with special talent, managed to be among the very few who play on a NFL roster. You’re still under your rookie contract, and although you’re making great money, you’re not set for life. You’ve taken all the bumps and bruises associated with playing football and look to be on the rise.

    Then in a split second one of your fellow football brethren in a twisted esprit de corps, slams into the side of your knee, effectively ending your season and threatening your livelihood. And your opponent did it with the express desire to injure you, not as some kind of payback from some perceived wrong you did to him, but because you contribute to your teams success.

    So your career is threatened. Money you can never recoup is lost. And for what. Someone on the other team getting $1,500 bucks? So they get affirmation from some of their teammates? If I was the victim of this egregious act, I’d be outraged at the piece of crap who may have destroyed my career.

    I’m amazed that considering what it took to get where they are, and how well it could pay-off, why would not every player condemn this practice instead of some participating in it?

    • Rick

      From a dark place though some players might say that if they didnt hit the guy in your scenerio then he may not make the team and have to sack groceries or go into the Arena League instead of making NFL money. So it is a him or you scenerio. Make a name and stick on a team or back off and get cut.

      Life isn’t fair.

      Because injury is a risk we have taken since playing football. I have seen ACLs and horrible injuries at the High School and College levels. You either acknowledge the risk and deal with it or don’t play.

      No one should want to hit the guy illegally but it happens. I am not in favor of purposely gunning down a guy.Remember what Warren Sapp did to Clifton those many years ago. But adding a little extra something into a legal hit I see no serious problem with.
      If they cross the lines the officals are there to throw the flag.

      One of my friends made into the NFL and bumped around at QB. He hardly spent any of his money because he said he was always one helmet to the knee away from selling insurance or real estate.

      It sucks but so does it that you are a 7th round pick that is 8th or 9th on the depth chart and probably won’t make the team because the wrong team drafted you. Sports has rules, they are not there for fair, they are there so everyone has to abide by them and provides a winner- which also means there is a loser.

      It is a harsh and voilent business sold as entertainment to the masses. Nothing more, nothing less.

      • Pete Kliman

        Don’t remind me of that cowardly action. He couln’t beat him fairly so he levels him on an interception after the ball carrier passed already . What a SAP!

    • Chad Toporski

      Well said. Sometimes a little empathy can go a long way.

  • Ray

    In my opinion tis is worst then betting on the game. Pete Rose gotten thrown out of baseball for betting on the game and nobody got hurt. Any body envolved wit this should be out of the game for life. The game is rough enoug without encourging trying to ruin somebody elses career.

    • Rick

      Fair enough opinion. I just disagree that this is not as bad as players/coaches betting on their own games and causing doubt in the validity of the sport. No one bets on wrestling for a reason.

  • http://None Bearmeat

    Best article you’ve ever penned Chad.

    Fantastic stuff. Couldn’t agree more.

    • Chad Toporski

      Thanks, Bearmeat.

  • BTF

    Fantastic article.

    Going out to deliberately injure a fellow professional is pathetic behaviour. Play hard hit hard yes and injuries happen and I’ve no problem with payments for performance per se but the “kill shots” and ” cart offs” that have been reported need to be met with punishments that show this will not be tolerated.

    • Chad Toporski

      Thanks, BTF. As I replied to another poster above, the punishments should certainly be severe.