Vai's View: Vai's view: Incentive for big plays? No problem. Bounties for injuries? Problem
Ronald Martinez, Getty Images
It's been more than 20 years, but NFL bounties resurfaced in the news again this week.
New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Peyton and team general manager Mickey Loomis issued a joint apology for operating a bounty program of rewarding players financially for alleged "cart-offs" and "knock-outs" of opponents.
Bounties first came to light in the NFL in 1989 when Eagles kicker Luis Zendejas was cut, then picked up by Dallas a few weeks before the first of the teams' two meetings.
Leading up to their first game, Zendejas informed his Cowboys' teammates and the Dallas media that when he was with the Eagles, bounties were paid for big hits on certain players. It turned out later that for effect, Zendejas exaggerated a wee bit on the Eagles' so-called "bounty" program.
Predictably, a firestorm erupted with the media dubbing the games "Bounty Bowl I & II," adding another layer to the storied rivalry between the two divisional teams.
My first six years in the NFL were spent with the Cardinals and Packers, and neither club had anything resembling a bounty program. I arrived in Philly a few years after the dust had settled on the "Bounty Bowls," surprised to see what people called the "bounty" system still intact.
Only, it wasn't a bounty system so much as it was an incentive program. Head coach Buddy Ryan had kept all of the players' fine money incurred over the year and simply used it to fund the program: $500 for an exceptional individual effort like a great catch, a pinpoint throw in a critical moment, a key interception, a sack, causing a fumble, a TD return; $100 for a special teams tackle behind the 20, a tackle behind the line of scrimmage, blocked punt, and yes, a big, clean hit.
The fine money was supposed to be sent to the league office in New York for NFL United Way campaign, but that process was made in good faith by each team. After all, the league didn't keep track of who was late for a team meeting or practice in Cleveland or missed curfew or the team plane in Philly. The Eagles collected thousands of dollars and kept it in-house to reward their players for making key plays.
No one EVER suggested a payoff for hurting someone. Wasn't even whispered. I'm fairly certain that our team leader, Reggie White, who was the conscience of our locker room and in many ways the entire NFL, would've objected and protested payouts for maiming opponents. Which is precisely why revelations of the Saints' bounty program are so disturbing — team leaders like linebacker Scott Fujita, who is on the executive council of the players union, fought for concussion testing and player safety programs from the owners. Yet, he participated in a bounty program that aimed to injure opponents? It's hypocritical and outrageous.
Former New York Giants head coach Bill Parcells once famously called Philadelphia and the Eagles a Banana Republic. Under Buddy Ryan, it was a dictatorship, and of course, like many third-world countries, the Eagles were rife with corruption, kickbacks and payoffs.
One year, my road roommate was veteran quarterback and former Steeler Bubby Brister, whom I loved dearly. On 10 road trips, he NEVER made our 11 p.m. curfew. He simply left a check on his bed. Missing curfew cost $1,000. The assistant coaches who picked up his check never seemed overly concerned with his absence. About midseason, I realized why. The checks Brister was leaving on his bed were not made out to the club, they were made out to the assistant coach who came for bed check.
Today, the NFL requires all fine money to be wired to league offices via direct deposit, so teams can't use it as the Eagles did in the late '80s-early '90s for its own purposes.
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