While on vacation from an existence that is pretty much a continuous vacation, I’ve tried to take a bit of a break from the whole bounty thing.
It’s been easy, because not much has been happening. But something contained in linebacker Jonathan Vilma’s recent affidavit requires a brief comment.
Or maybe a not-so-brief comment.
Vilma’s affidavit outlines statistics regarding actual injuries inflicted by the Saints defense from 2009 through 2011, the three years in which the team allegedly had a bounty program. Under the heading “Objective Facts,” Vilma points out that the Saints defense was penalized nine times for infractions that resulted in fines, that Vilma himself was fined only twice during that period, that Vilma was flagged only three times for personal fouls during that period, and that the Saints “injured” fewer opposing players per game from 2009 through 2011 than every team except the Chargers. (Those numbers either had been leaked to or generated by the Los Angeles Times for a recent op-ed arguing that the injuries actually inflicted by the Saints don’t justify the punishment imposed. As explained below, the Times — and Vilma — have missed the point.)
Setting aside the fact that the high-low “give me my money” hit on Brett Favre inexplicably wasn’t flagged (but, please, give the locked-out game officials every last penny they want), these objective facts are objectively irrelevant to the sanctions the league has imposed.
Though the NFL has done a poor job of explaining its concerns and backing them up with unassailable proof, the league is troubled not by the fact that more injuries occurred but by the fact that the Saints created an environment in which there was an incentive to inflict injury through the application of clean, legal hits.
That’s where the divide regarding semantics arises. But for the cartoonish pre-game rants from former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (which by all appearances the players ignored), there’s no evidence that the Saints specifically encouraged players to inflict or exacerbate injuries. Those fewer-than-200 pages produced by the NFL in advance of last month’s appeal hearing, for example, contain several pages of specific pre-game notes and observations regarding an upcoming opponent. Nowhere in those pages does there appear any Longest Yard-style chronicle of the broken bones or glass jaws or other weak spots on an opponent’s body.
Given the level of detail revealed by those pre-game notes, the use of full-blown bounty program undoubtedly would have provided players with that kind of advance information.
From the league’s perspective, a program that encourages players to try to inflict injuries legally and through “clean” hits has no place in a game that is trying its damnedest to be as safe as reasonably possible. For reasons that we still can’t discern, the league never has explained the situation that simply and clearly.
That said, Commissioner Roger Goodell articulated the league’s position from that perspective in the July 2, 2012 letter upholding the bounty suspensions. Coincidentally, Goodell focuses on this point when dismissing the argument that the Saints’ behavior didn’t result in an uptick in penalties and fines.
“[W]hether a hit was ultimately subject to a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct or unnecessary roughness is irrelevant for these purposes,” Goodell wrote. “[I]ncentivizing players for hits that injure or increase the risk of injury to opposing players undermines the integrity of, and public confidence in, the game of professional football.”
Those 48 words crystallize succinctly and completely the crux of the league’s concerns. So why hasn’t that message been sent more often in the past four-plus months?
Maybe the league fears that making the issue that simple would invite criticism regarding the hypocrisy of a culture that for decades marketed — and thus encouraged — players to apply clean, legal hits as hard as possible, and thus in a way that could inflict injury. Maybe the league fears that the media and the fans would simply revolt against the notion that, as long as hits are clean and legal, it doesn’t matter whether the player delivering the clean and legal hit is trying to inflict injury.
Regardless, the league has tried from the get-go to make the system seem more sinister than it really is. And perhaps the real purpose for disclosing the stats contained in Vilma’s affidavit is to finally get more members of the media — and in turn more fans — to embrace the philosophical debate regarding whether the league’s characterization of offering walking-around money to players who apply clean, legal hits as a “bounty” is fair, accurate, and/or just.