Op-ed: The Problem With Being Anti-Headhunting

It was recently written in The New York Post that members of the New Orleans Saints organization should face criminal prosecution for Headhunt-Gate. Under organized crime laws no less. Meanwhile, at Grantland, Charles Pierce waxed poetic about some sort of apparent social contract Americans have with the sport of football whereby we accept some consequential violence to watch a game that is, in Pierce's mind at least, about something other than violence. These were just two of dozens of perspectives in support of what appears to be nearly universal condemnation of the Saints' practice of paying bonuses for injuring opposing players. Particularly in a world where we understand the long-term consequences of certain injuries, particularly those to the head, better than ever, espousing such an anti-headhunting stance is hardly objectionable.

However, not one analysis of the situation I have read has addressed the flip-side of the coin; the culpability, and hypocrisy, of the American public. A public that thirsts for big hits, hyper-aggressive defenders, bruising running backs, and of course, the victories that come with them. Americans spend billions of dollars a year on the NFL, and while some of that is for the joy that comes from a perfectly executed go-route off of an audible, an athletic interception or a dazzling run, it is also true that not one of those outcomes are possible without some truly brutal contact somewhere else on the field. It is also true that, on any given play, even when everything is done by the book, someone can be injured in a way that ends their game, season or even career.

This is not to say that I necessarily think that bounties are okay, or that the Saints shouldn't be punished for breaking an established rule. There are also folks out there that decry the violence of the sport whether within or outside the rules of the game. I applaud their consistency. However I am having trouble accepting the cries of disgust about the practice from the same people who delight in a lights-out Ray Lewis hit on whatever running back is foolish enough to turn upfield, or who gleefully watch an NFL Films segment showing linemen pumping each other up 'for war' between series. Or those who quote the maxim that the game is won in the trenches, where 300+ pound behemoths seek to do nothing but inflict pain, ad nauseum. Or in fact, just about everyone who watches and enjoy the game itself. For, at its very core, the system rewards those who have the ability to injure others very richly, while others who can't make the 'big play' become insurance salesmen. What is the difference between a contract bonus you receive for going to the Pro-Bowl on the back of featuring weekly in an ESPN 'Jacked Up' segment and getting a little cash on the side from your teammates for a lights-out hit? Not much from my perspective. And I am honestly taken aback that so many seem to disagree.

Let me make it clear if I haven't already; I am not currently speaking out for or against the bounty system. I am merely against the rank hypocrisy of those who would have it both ways. And I am not merely ranting; there are real economic implications marching hand-in-hand with this topic. I noted in our recent Snippets column that some folks have started to consider what life without an NFL could be like. In one particular example, economists Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier (on the same Grantland site noted above) looked at the trickle-up impact concussions could have on the league in the future. In essence, if Pop Warner programs, high schools and colleges begin to abandon the game due to the deleterious impact of concussions, that would certainly have an impact on the final product of the NFL. It might take a while, but then again, it wasn't so long that a heavyweight title fight meant something. It could well be that the concussion/injury issue could potentially severely impact a multi-billion dollar industry. That said, it is clear that there are questions which need to be asked and answered about the future of the game.

Of course, instead of waiting for spontaneous change, the NFL could make changes from the top. It seems to be doing so to some extent, and player safety, particularly that of quarterbacks, seems to be taking a prominent position in the plans of the Commissioner's Office. But at some point, it is likely that people will stop paying full price for a watered-down product. In other words, no one is going to pay to watch flag football, no matter how elegant it might be. Since owners won't stand for lower profits, it is a fine line indeed that the leaders of the NFL are walking. Either change from the top down and lose fans and revenue, or let change happen from the grass roots as mentioned above and, well, lose fans and revenue.

Or, of course, there is option three, seemingly the preferred option of the NFL, which seems to be 'pay lip service to change, fine the Saints to quell public fury and let the profits keep rolling in.' Deep in their hearts, most Americans would probably be just fine with this latter option, but of course this is completely at odds with the general outrage being expressed at Headhunt-Gate.

It could very well be wrong, legally, morally, however you want to judge it, to put an injury bounty system in place. It rewards hurting others, and this is a defensible argument. But if that is true, it almost has to be true that football itself, where brutality and the resulting bodily injuries and concussions are commonplace due to the very nature of the sport, has to be changed as well. Yes, there are more rules in place than ever to protect players, particularly quarterbacks. However, football is still a brutal, brutal sport, even when it is played at its cleanest. If one is of the opinion that bounties are wrong because they reward hurting others, then it can't be that they would accept the NFL continuing as currently constituted. However, very few people are calling for an end to the league. And as that is the case, it could well be that the bounty controversy shined even more light on hypocrisy than it did on a particular instance of rule-breaking.

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