As the layers continue to come off the stinking, nasty onion that was Gregg Williams’ pre-game comments as the Saints prepared to face the 49ers in the playoffs, there’s another reason to believe that the NFL can’t allow Williams into an NFL locker room in the future.
At a time when every player knows and assumes the risk of long-term harm resulting from chronic head injuries and when the league is presumably doing everything reasonably in its power to protect players from the risk of harm arising from concussions, most of the league’s potential legal exposure applies only to men who played while the NFL was allegedly concealing the dangers and/or failing to reasonably protect players. Today’s players fully know what they’re signing up for, like men and women who agree to become police officers, firefighters, members of the military, or any other profession that has inherent risks.
But problems can arise if/when individual teams and/or coaches do things that supersede the NFL’s new protections. Like specifically targeting players for concussions.
Though some want to compare the lawsuits the league currently is facing to tobacco litigation, the NFL is dealing with a finite group of potential plaintiffs, numbering potentially between 10,00 and 20,000, at the absolute maximum. The tobacco industry continues to survive, and thrive, despite decades of lying about the addictive properties of nicotine, and despite the fact that millions of people have smoked (and continue to smoke) cigarettes.
For the NFL, liability becomes a threat to the ongoing ability to do business only if the NFL continues to create new plaintiffs. And the NFL will continue to create new plaintiffs only if the NFL isn’t vigilant about taking reasonable steps to ensure that players aren’t deliberately trying to give other players concussions.
That means, as suggested last week, that the NFL should start recording every team meeting, to deter coaches from crossing the line and to maintain a clear record that the line wasn’t crossed. And it also means that the NFL should keep out of the sport men who have shown they can’t be trusted to do the right thing.
If Williams is reinstated, and if he thereafter conducts secret off-radar meetings with players aimed at getting them to aim for heads, the NFL can’t claim that it had no reason to know Williams may do something like that, even if the NFL tries to hide behind the notion that Williams deserved a “second chance.” When it comes to civil liability, there are no second chances, because it’s the second chance gone bad that creates the biggest problem for a billion-dollar business enterprise.
Keeping Williams out permanently also provides the ultimate incentive for other coaches to avoid urging players to try to inflict concussions against other players. If all coaches know that encouraging the infliction of injury will get a coach banned for life, coaches definitely won’t encourage the infliction of injury.
And so, notwithstanding any desire to allow Williams to become the NFL’s latest example of redemption, the league can’t afford, literally and figuratively, to allow any coach who would encourage players to dispense concussions to continue to be exposed to players. Williams may have some other place in the NFL or with one of its teams. But, from a liability standpoint, it would be foolish for the league to allow Williams to return to a locker room, a meeting room, or a sideline.