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.
According to reports, the money used by then-Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was collected amongst the players. That may seem odd to some, but I assure you the practice is not uncommon. Players collect money all the time for this and more altruistic things like tipping the ball-boys, clubhouse attendants, equipment men and giving the practice squad guys a little more money during a playoff run.
As I see it, the only place where the Saints crossed the line was paying for injuring opponents.
Financial incentive for big plays, including clean hits? I have no problem with that. That may be football's dirty little secret, but it happens more often than you may think. As a player, I was always fascinated with the extraordinary lengths my millionaire teammates would go to collect a $100 bill for doing something beyond the call of duty.
A game driven by emotion thrives on peer recognition.
A lot of colleges use special T-shirts to motivate players. Some, like BYU and Ohio State, use helmet stickers as incentive for making big plays. Players love to earn them for making the key plays that turn momentum or spark a win. Jim McMahon loved them so much, he removed the "Y" on his helmet in order to fit all of his Cougar stickers on. And don't think for one minute that stickers aren't awarded for the violent hits that make a stadium gasp.
NFL football is routinely the highest rated programming on television every year because we love the strategy, performances and for many, maybe even the violence. Sometimes, as was the case in New Orleans for a few years, it's over the top, so, commissioners, coaches and officials will reel it back in.
They should and they will. I'm an advocate for concussion testing, improved equipment and rule changes that can safeguard players' safety, including severe penalties for those who violate rules of common sense as the Saints did.
But in the end, football is a violent game played by violent men. What they do and how they do it to prepare for that violence each week for our entertainment would be a breach of people's decorum for decency. And I'm just speaking for those who do it the right way. It's grueling and excruciating.
When we order filet mignon, we're not really interested in the details of how it ended up on our plate, just that it does and at the temperature of our choosing.
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