Saints scandal speaks to us all

I’m not a huge football fan, but I have been following the bounty scandal that has hit the New Orleans Saints.

The NFL suspended Saints head coach Sean Payton, General Manager Mickey Loomis and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams for participating in a pay-for-performance system that gave cash awards to players who hit opposing players hard enough to knock them out of a game or cause them to be helped off the field. The players most heavily involved in the bounty scheme face potential disciplinary action.

I know football is a rough sport. Players’ careers have been ended by legal hits. But for players to accept rewards for purposely taking someone out is barbaric in a sport that is brutal even when played fair. Weren’t the players in this scheme paid enough money already?

That’s a rhetorical question of course. Money has driven people to do all kinds of things in and out of sports. It’s part of our culture. We reward disgusting behavior. Look at how Wall Street helped sink the economy. Just look at reality TV. Bad boys, girls, men and women get paid for acting ugly. The uglier the act, the bigger the fame and fortune.

The Saints scandal ought to give us all pause. It should result in some introspection about what we will do for money. The Saints’ bounty system in many ways is similar to what occurs in other professional worlds where pay-for-performance results in people placing financial gain over doing the right thing. How else would you explain professionals who profited by making home loans to people who they had to know were stretching themselves financially under the best circumstances.

I’ve seen monthly mortgage payments that took up 50, 60 and even 70 percent of the person’s net pay. You might argue that the borrowers should have known better. But who in good conscience would approve a loan like that?

Okay, why should the NFL punish the Saints’ coaches and players? Isn’t it in the nature of the game of football to hit hard enough to wipe out your opponent?

And yet the NFL has rules against malicious and unnecessary roughness. In 2009 and 2011, the Saints were one of the top five teams for unnecessary roughness penalties, the NFL said. The team culture said playing nasty was preferred.

Players were paid $1,500 for knocking an opponent out of a game and $1,000 for a hit that led to an opposing player’s being helped off the field, according to the NFL. However small the bounties in comparison with salaries, money was still the motivator. (Make it to championship games and there’s more money. The Saints players received $83,000 bonuses for winning Super Bowl XLIV.) Players primarily funded the bounty program, according to the NFL.

“We are all accountable and responsible for player health and safety and the integrity of the game,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said. “We will not tolerate conduct or a culture that undermines those priorities.”

How many of us work for companies that have a culture of nastiness or caveat emptor (let the buyer beware)? Has that culture corrupted you?

Greg Smith, a former executive director at Goldman Sachs, said he resigned because he had had enough of the money-is-everything culture. He wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times claiming that people got ahead by putting the interest of the company ahead of their clients and doing whatever brought the biggest profit to Sachs: “It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off. . . . I don’t know of any illegal behavior, but will people push the envelope and pitch lucrative and complicated products to clients even if they are not the simplest investments or the ones most directly aligned with the client’s goals? Absolutely. Every day, in fact.”

In recent years, the Federal Trade Commission has been cracking down on various industries as part of a push to identify and address fraud and deceptive practices that particularly target people who are financially distressed.

“Weed out the morally bankrupt people, no matter how much money they make for the firm,” Smith said.

Or how much they make for your company or team.

NFL players know when they play football that they are going to be hit, but they shouldn’t be subject to gratuitous violence. In and out of sports, we should expect people to play fair, and if someone is hurt, it shouldn’t be intentional. If it is, the perpetrators deserve to be thrown out of the game.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Or e-mail: singletarym@washpost.com. Personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated. For previous Color of Money columns, go to postbusiness.com.

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.”
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