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Headhunting in the NFL

“Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”

—Vince Lombardi

American football fans were stunned to learn yesterday that New Orleans Saints head coach, Sean Payton, had been suspended without pay (forfeiting an estimated $8 million) for the upcoming season, after having been found guilty of issuing “bounties” on opposing players.

Although some observers expressed shock at the severity of the penalty (apparently, many NFL insiders believed Payton would receive no more than a four-game suspension), anyone who’s been following this story, and has seen it for the potentially incendiary scandal it was, realized that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had no choice but to issue a death sentence—not if he wanted to maintain the League’s credibility.

Coach Payton and his former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (whom Goodell suspended “indefinitely”) confessed to having instituted the bounties.  They’d been doing them for at least three years.  Which means what?—that they were doing them in 2010, the year the Saints won the Super Bowl?!  To those unfamiliar with the term, a “bounty” is money paid to a team’s defensive player for delivering an injury serious enough to put an opposing player (preferably the opposing quarterback) out of the game.

As cynical as we’ve become when it comes to dirty tricks and sleazeball tactics in the fields of politics and commerce, the notion of sports bounties is nonetheless repugnant to most of us.  Cynical as we may be, the concept sticks in our craw.  Maybe we’re just kidding ourselves, but sports—both professional and collegiate—seem somehow “purer,” more ethical, than politics and commerce (although we clearly recognize that sports is also a “business”).

More to the point, even the most rabid and callused fan is going to flinch at seeing an opposing player writhing in agony on the ground, knowing that he’d been purposely torpedoed by a player from the home team.  After all, there’s such a thing as sportsmanship.  But Coach Payton not only encouraged his players to do exactly that—to intentionally engage in violent headhunting—he  rewarded them with cash for doing it successfully.

Besides the sportsmanship angle, there’s another aspect to this—the risk of administering a catastrophic, career-ending injury.  A player who’s purposely trying to injure an opponent has no way of knowing if his assault will put him out of commission for one series, one quarter, one game….or for the rest of his career.  There’s no way of knowing how severe the intentional injury will be.  A very sobering consideration.

And not to jump on a man when he’s down, but Sean Payton has always been a low-class, opportunistic, disloyal shithead.  In 1987, Payton showed his true colors by crossing the union’s picket line.  It’s true.  He was a scab.  In fact, that’s the only way he made into the NFL in the first place, by betraying his union brothers.  It would be great if Payton never returned to the NFL.  The League would do just fine without him.

DAVID MACARAY, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former union rep.   He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press.  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net


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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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