A wise man - possibly Keyser Söze; probably Charles Baudelaire - once said that the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn't exist. When it comes to Bountygate, the greatest trick the National Football League has pulled is convincing the sports world that the entire sordid, farcical, seemingly endless pay-for-pain affair is all about justice.
Or, more accurately, the league's kangaroo court jurisprudence.
In the wake of former league commissioner Paul Tagliabue's arbitration ruling on the matter, reaction was swift, widespread and mostly focused on: (a) the legal and procedural facts of the case; (b) the larger power struggle between New Orleans Saints players and current commissioner-cum-Time magazine cover hero Roger Goodell. Was the NFL's original investigation into the Saints' bounty system both sloppy and presumptive? (Looks like.) Had Goodell overstepped his authority in paternalistic and heavy-handed fashion by doling out relatively severe punishments on the basis of shoddy evidence? (Tagliabue suggested as much.) Did Jonathan Vilma and his teammates actually do anything wrong, and if so, are they actually responsible for their alleged actions given the leadership of Gregg "Kill the Head" Williams and other Saints coaches? (On the first question, the evidence remains indeterminate; on the second, Tagliabue suggests no.) Also, does Tagliabue's final judgment serve as a mild repudiation of Goodell's increasingly dictatorial-like reign, particularly on issues of player safety and misconduct? (Signs point to yes.)
Largely lost in the who-won, who-lost insta-analysis, however, was the same thing that was lost as Bountygate dragged on. The heart of the matter. The point of the matter. At its core, Bountygate has never been about Goodell versus Vilma, a proxy war between players and owners, the trampling of due process or even whether Saints defenders actually had a Cash-4-Cart-Offs bounty system.
No, Bountygate is and will always be about violence. About the NFL's ongoing, increasingly strained efforts to make football's inherent violence and inevitable human wreckage palatable.
When the Saints' bounty story originally came to light, I was stunned. Not because it involved large men being paid to hurt each other - just because I stopped watching football this season doesn't mean I'm unfamiliar with the sport - nor because it involved large men being paid cash tips to do the same. Uh-uh. I was stunned because the story was released by the NFL. On purpose. Even though the league easily could have kept the matter quiet and in-house: a few hush-hush fines, a handful of confidential warnings, an abrupt Williams retirement with a spend-more-time-with-my-family cover story and poof! A potential public relations headache that never had to exist is now gone. Everyone moves on to writing more Robert Griffin III: Awesome … or totally awesome? stories.
Look, I work in media. I deal with PR people. Much of the time, their job is to make my job harder. (Note: I like them anyway.) It's generally not in the best interest of their continuing gainful employment to dole out and promote material that makes the company, product or person they represent look bad. Only that's what the NFL did. They trotted out a Bountygate dog-and-pony show, produced a voluminous report, spoon-fed it to the press and wrapped everything in a bow of zero-tolerance proclamations about the sanctity of player safety.
The last part was the tip-off.
On "Pardon The Interruption," co-host Tony Kornheiser said that Bountygate was "Roger Goodell taking violence out of the National Football League. You can hit, but you can't be violent anymore." Such was the message. The spin. The reason the league leaked the story and lens through which Goodell and Co. want society to view their industry. A message similar to the one former Washington Redskins lineman George Starke delivered on a D.C.-area sports talk radio show after the Saints story broke, when he told a story that went like this: Back in the 1970s, 'Skins coach George Allen put a bounty on Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach. A cool $200. And that was perfectly okay.
"The bounty was to knock him out," Starke said. "Not hurt him. Let's be clear about that. Knock him out."
Right. Knock him out. But somehow, not hurt him. What was the league doing? Drawing the same distinction. Doing so to cover its posterior. Why? As anyone paying attention knows, the NFL is in long-term trouble. It faces a growing body of scientific and medical evidence that football participation is unacceptably risky, because it turns your brain into a ticking time bomb. Former players don't just limp around on reconstructed knees. They become fundamentally different people with fundamentally altered minds. They guzzle anti-freeze and kill themselves. They shoot themselves in the chest so their brains can be posthumously dissected. In the short term, the league faces a series of potentially damaging lawsuits alleging that it both covered up and lied about knowledge of this risk; in the long term, that same risk threatens to turn the sport into boxing, largely by destroying its popularity and viability at the youth level, one concerned parent at a time.
There is, however, a way out. Or at the very least, a potentially effective dodge. A clever hedge against the increasingly nervous mothers, the tragic and terrifying personal stories, the columns likening the NFL to Big Tobacco, the odds that a future judge, jury or settlement arbitrator will see the league the same way. The dodge is a two-step dance, and it goes something like this:
1. Make bad people the problem. Or bad rules. Or bad enforcement of the rules. Anything but football itself.
2. Establish and reinforce the notion that football's inherent physical violence can be morally parsed on the basis of intent, the way Neapolitan ice cream can be parsed on the basis of strawberry, chocolate and vanilla.
Regarding the first point, the NFL's eagerness to push the Bountygate story is wholly understandable: By suddenly cracking down on a dangerous practice that has been going on in pro football since, well, forever, the league was publicly proclaiming that we're doing everything we can to protect athletes! Brain trauma's not our fault! Football's only dangerous if no-good, very bad men like Gregg Williams are allowed to run free! Goodell is an angel of mercy! If we just have bigger fines for helmet-to-helmet hits, and maybe run a few slick ads about safe football, and perhaps get rid of kickoffs, then everything will be okay!
The second point is complementary, more complex and inarguably more important. It cuts to what makes football a violent, yet viable mass-market entertainment, free of the disgust and discomfort that confine boxing and mixed-martial arts to relative niche status. It's a variation on an old Shakespearian chestnut, one that, for now, society seems to buy: Football in itself isn't good or bad, but intentions make it so. The sport isn't an activity in which people are paid to deliberately hurt other people; it's an activity in which people are paid to participate, and sometimes they get hurt, but only by accident. Dirty hits versus good, hard, clean tackles. League-approved player salaries versus - as I said before - the Saints' intraoffice cash tips. Now, this distinction matters. It matters a great deal. Because while the former is a kickass thing to watch on Sunday afternoons, the latter is otherwise known as assault and battery. It's a distinction - and a worldview, really - best articulated by ESPN.com's Gregg Easterbrook, a former colleague of mine and a longtime arbiter of pigskin right and wrong. Here's part of what he wrote about Bountygate:
... there will always be injuries in football. But the intent of a football player never should be to injure; the intent should be to hit hard, legally. American law places considerable emphasis on intent. Intending to harm your opponent changes football from something manly and sportsmanlike into something brutish and disgusting ...
Maybe so. Only here's the thing about broken ribs, torn ligaments and concussed brains: Honorable intentions don't make them any less painful. Or any less severe. Harm is harm; damage is damage; violence is violence. In "Terminator 2," there's a scene in which skatepunk John Connor orders cybernetic murder machine Arnold Schwarzenegger to take out an entire SWAT team without actually killing them. The former Governator does not proceed to hand the cops tulip bunches. He shoot them in their kneecaps. And the end result is not triumph of "manly sportsmanship;" it is likely an enormous future strain on the Los Angeles County police disability fund.
Granted, football players aren't shooting each other, a la "The Last Boy Scout." But they are hurting each other. All the time, in a hundred different ways. Violence is an essential part of the football, baked into the game's cake. It is neither an accident nor an unfortunate byproduct of trying to score and prevent touchdowns; rather, it's the inevitable outcome of hitting, blocking and tackling as they relate to physics and human biology. Like a medieval monk parsing the number of angels on a pinhead, Starke insisted that none of his teammates were trying to hurt Staubach. They were just trying to knock him out. Hello? How does knocking out happen? By lightly tapping Captain Comeback on the shoulder pads and calmly requesting his presence in the training room for the next two hours?
Um, no. It happens through the application of force, mass times acceleration, to Staubach's brain and body, until one or both are so broken that the quarterback can't throw a pass, and/or stand up straight. Does intent really matter? I can intend to not break your jaw and leave you drinking through a straw; but if we're playing brickyard dodgeball and I'm throwing bricks at you - because bricks are a part of this particular game - what do you think is probably going to happen?
Bountygate started as a parlor trick: We can change the culture of football, and change the scary physical carnage, too! It ended as a sleight-of-hand: Come for the legalistic wrangling and arguments over due process; stay for the final dispensation of justice! It was a convenient distraction either way. Ultimately, nasty thoughts and mean speeches and cash bounties don't cause brain trauma. Hitting causes brain trauma. And hitting is the sport, no matter who Goodell fines or suspends, no matter how well intended he, the league's players or anyone else happens to be. Including the rest of us. A society that has fashioned a de facto national pastime out of increasingly self-evident harm. Never mind just. Is that right?