Monday, March 5, 2012

The price of entertainment: NFL vs. The Saints

The New Orleans Saints, the darlings of the football world when they won Super Bowl XLIV (the one in 2009, for those who aren't Roman) for the hurricane-ravaged city.

This weekend, however, information started coming out that would taint that feel-good story and further blur the line as far as what is justified in sports entertainment.

Sports Illustrated reported a "pay-for-performance," or bounty system, that the Saints had in place for the last few seasons. The Defensive Coordinator at the time, Greg Williams, ran the player funded bounty pool that offered monetary payouts of at least $1,000 to any player who would knock a player out of the game temporarily. They would receive larger awards for more extensive injuries to opponents.

The largest reported was a possible $10,000 offered by linebacker John Vilma to any player that took Brett Favre out of a playoff game the Saints played them in.

All of this is, of course, illegal under NFL rules. It also is coming to light at a very decisive time in NFL history: over the course of the past two seasons, regulations have been put in place and decisions made to make the game safer. "Player safety" has been the mantra of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell since player concussions have been a large issue lately.

James Harrison is a linebacker for the historic Pittsburgh Steelers and has been a lightning rod for the safety debate. Harrison has a history of heavy (or "dirty") hits, and made his thoughts clear in an article in Men's Journal. In the article published in 2011, Harrison referred to Goodell as a "crook and a puppet" amongst other things, and said he hated him and would never respect him.

But for all his tough talk and hateful comments, is Harrison actually the protagonist in the story of player safety? And are the New Orleans Saints only doing what it takes to motivate their teammates?

It's a double edged sword for the NFL: either be the driving force to promote safety,or keep your sport the institution of tradition that it is.

On one hand, fans don't enjoy the game when you restrict how and when a player can be tackled.

As it stands now, a defender can only hit a player if the player can protect himself (knows the player is there, which dramatically lowers the chance of knocking the ball loose) and can still only hit the player if he leads with his shoulder, which makes it much easier to slip free of such a hit. A player like Harrison is known to hit the ball carrier without his knowledge, causing game-changing fumbles. He also hits with his helmet, causing enough force to knock the carrier off balance.

Being a fan myself, I'd prefer to see the hardest fight I can see in a football game. Seeing players draw fouls like an NBA player is not what I watch the game for.

The other side of this issue is on the side of former players, most notably the recently deceased Dave Duerson, former player for my team, the Chicago Bears.

Duerson played in the NFL for ten years, retiring in 1994. After a decade, when player concussions were realized to be a large issue, several former players were diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disorder that caused several issues including aggression, confusion and depression.

CTE is currently being researched by the Boston University School of Medicine. Duerson had sent a text to his family asking that his family donate his brain to the program. Shortly after this message, Duerson ended his life with "self-inflicted gun wounds."

So which side takes higher precedence? The players and fans who want to keep the game pure and physically exerting? Or the former players who accepted the risk and now have their lives on the line?

The first step in that decision begins with the penalty awaiting the New Orleans Saints. Whether it's a slap on the wrist or a message-sending fine, the following week will dictate where professional football is heading.

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