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Lost in all the outrage over the New Orleans Saints’ bounty program is a conversation about money and what it means to professional athletes. The sums that we’ve been hearing about—anywhere in the range of $1,000 to $10,000 to knock out opposing players—sound substantial to the typical American. But the average NFL player makes just short of $2 million, while the median salary is around $800,000. Players are paid only during the season, which means they earn 1/17th of their salary every week. For a player making the average salary that’s around $120,000 a week. For someone making the median, it’s close to $50,000.
Roman Harper, the Saints safety who’s been known to dish out kill shots, was in the last year of his rookie deal in 2009. That was a four-year, $2.5 million contract, well under the average NFL salary. But after the 2010 season, Harper signed a new four-year deal for $16 million guaranteed. This is money to NFL players. And it’s this kind of cash that will motivate a defensive player to decapitate a quarterback, not a few grand under the table.
Non-contract bonuses are common in the locker room. Not every reward is based on aggression. Some have to do with composure. If you get cheap-shotted and you don’t retaliate, you get a handful of cash. If you cause a fumble in practice, you get paid. (And if you’re the fumbler, you pay up.) If you make a tackle inside the 20-yard line on a kickoff, you get paid. If you’re the first one on the kickoff coverage team to cross the opposite goal line, you get paid. The money breaks up the monotony of a drab work week by rewarding a player for making a play he was trying to make anyway, because it’s his job.
This is life inside the NFL bubble, a world where extreme violence is rewarded with a paycheck. Before you got money to play the game, this violence was rewarded with pats on the back, special treatment, undeserved grades, scholarships, women, and status. There has always been a reward system in place for playing the game viciously. In the NFL, above all else, that reward is keeping your job.
Did Gregg Williams, by allegedly offering up cash for violent hits, make the game more dangerous? Not any more than the Pop Warner coach who grabs a kid by his facemask and tells him he hits like a sissy. Not any more than an ESPN correspondent who speculates about Michael Vick’s readiness to return to action following a concussion. And certainly not any more than Roger Goodell, who regularly implies that he can make the game safe by changing the rules.
Still, it is a coach’s league. A player only steps on the field if his coach allows it. And there are certainly plenty of tough-guy coaches like Gregg Williams who beat their chests and think of little mind games to get their players foaming at the mouth to go hit someone. But once you step on the field, everything else fades away, including the pre-game speech of your overzealous coach. When you make the choice to put on your helmet, there’s going to be a bounty of one kind or another on your head. No locker room speech can change that.
I find it unlikely that a player would focus on injuring an opponent in defiance of the referees on the field, the league office that reviews every hit, and his peers to whom he must answer every day and who don’t take kindly to cheap shots. No matter what cash they dispensed, the Saints didn’t play the game differently than any other team once they hit the field. These peripheral reward systems are pebbles around a boulder, and that boulder is rolling downhill.
Besides, in a game where 100 percent of the players get injured, why does it matter to us how they’re injured? The real outrage here isn't the bounties and the cart-off hits and knockout blows; it's the league office's need to sanctify all the bloodshed and ugliness with well-drawn rules and regulations. But bounties or no bounties, the game maims the men who play it. Yet the NFL stays busy selling the myth that football would be safe so long as the guys on the field played with a little integrity. Now where is the integrity in that? [Update, 1:20 p.m.: Due to an editing error, the wording at the end of this paragraph was originally taken from an earlier draft. The piece has been updated.]