How far can we carry the theory that the graphic climax to the NFL's bounty scandal is analogous to the current state of our society? Pretty far, but perhaps not in the most obvious way.
Former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' money-for-injuries pre-game speech is certainly a chilling counterpoint to the middle-American ideal of winning "one for the Gipper." But if honest, how surprised were we?
"Football is the last thing left in civilization where men can literally fling themselves bodily at one another in combat and not be at war." -- Ronald Reagan (How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader, Dinesh D'Souza)
Despite the inherent violence and the admission that multiple bounty systems have existed, almost all players have open disdain for any peer who ignores the unwritten rule to never consciously jeopardize an opponent's career. The line is firmly between the verbs "hurt" and "injure." Anyone who has ever "played hurt" or been unable to "play injured" knows the vast moat separating the two. It is not a hypothetical or ambiguous distinction.
The existence of a money pool doled out for ferocious hits may not have been news, but cultural tolerance for this high a price on our entertainment has changed. Yahoo's Michael Silver, who has led the charge in the bounty scandal coverage, wrote:
Clearly, a culture change is upon us. The increased attention on... head trauma, the rules interpretations instituted [to protect current players and] recent lawsuits filed by former players... have created a tipping point -- and the bounty scandal was [Commissioner Roger] Goodell's call to action.
If tending toward the cynical view, the NFL's "zero tolerance" policy on illegal hits could be seen as a direct result of those looming lawsuits. However, regardless of genesis, these rules (including a specific prohibition on any kind of unofficial incentives) aren't new. The league has been sending out written notices twice a year prohibiting the practice -- complete with a poster to be prominently displayed in locker rooms.
NFL Security investigated rumors of this practice by the Saints for several years and everyone from player to general manager flatly denied that New Orleans operated a bounty program. The penalized coaches and the GM lied to Roger Goodell's face -- repeatedly. This now-infamous Williams speech occurred after two years of being fully aware that he was being investigated for this very thing. And he gave that speech knowing that a filmmaker was in the room! There may be a new definition of "hubris" in our upcoming dictionaries.
The real reasons that Goodell lowered the full weight of the NFL hammer are unbelievable arrogance and a total disregard for that celebrated phrase: "truth or consequences." Mickey Loomis, Sean Payton, Joe Vitt, Gregg Williams and as-yet-unknown players clearly believed that they were above the rules. Above the league central office. And above the Commissioner. They tugged on Superman's cape -- and laughed.
And that's where this scandal resonates with American culture. Not that we are fans of a violent game and somewhat morally complicit in cheering the hardest of hits. There is an argument to be made that we are, but the true parallel is with that echelon of the powerful elite who thinks that every action is above scrutiny by virtue of their somehow innate superiority to the rest of society. It's with an entire group of people taught since childhood that, because they can catch a football (or Daddy is on Wall Street or Mommy is the Mayor or just because they have more money in the bank), nothing they do will ever be questioned. It's a culture of non-accountability for the top strata. And that is dishearteningly familiar in America just now.
One can only imagine the shocked faces when Goodell showed this group of NFL nobility who the Alpha male really is in the NFL. Football franchises can be like modern corporate fiefdoms, accustomed to operating in a responsibility-vacuum created by their own press. And doesn't that sound familiar, Goldman-Sachs?
The NFL Commissioner's level of seemingly unlimited power can be disquieting. And I am firmly on record as not appreciating his union-busting attempts on behalf of the owners last summer. But for at least this one moment in time -- you go, Roger!