It’s a given that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell must severely punish longtime defensive coordinator Gregg Williams for operating a bounty system. Goodell also should hammer anyone under his authority who participated, or knowingly looked the other way, while Williams directed his pay-for-pain program with the New Orleans Saints after he refined it in Washington.
That’s the easy part. Changing the NFL’s warped culture, in which Williams’s out-of-bounds conduct was accepted, and even admired, is Goodell’s bigger challenge.
Goodell has stressed the need for improved player safety. He has advocated for rules changes to protect players and sternly enforced disciplinary action for contact no longer permitted.
But when a high-profile defensive coach has reportedly violated rules by paying cash bonuses for “knock-out hits” and “kill shots,” tackles that sent players to the sideline during games, the message clearly isn’t reaching everyone.
During the lockout, players raised concerns about post-career health problems from playing the game. Yet those who followed Williams were willing to potentially end an opponent’s career for a few thousand dollars.
And the anger expressed toward whistle-blowing players for exposing Williams’s bounty system that was detrimental to players provides another example of how much work Goodell still has ahead of him on a topic vital to the future of the nation’s most popular sport. Rightfully so, the NFL’s image has taken a painful hit.
“When you boil it right down to it, violence is obviously a large part of what the game is,” former Redskins offensive lineman Pete Kendall said in a phone interview.
“It’s a game where you’ve got 11 guys trying to overwhelm another group of 11 guys. And intimidation is part of that. But that being said, going out of one’s way to specifically incentivize and reward somebody for injuring another player . . . that makes me a little bit uncomfortable.”
Several players who worked with Williams in Washington have rallied to his defense since last week, when the NFL released its findings on the Saints’ bounties. The Redskins also face a league investigation.
Williams’s actions, at least in Washington, have been mischaracterized, players say.
“Everyone is focusing on the word, ‘bounty,’ ” former Redskins cornerback Shawn Springs said. “That’s where this whole thing got messed up.
“Bounty is a term used for trying to go kill somebody. Nothing we did in Washington was outside the rules. It was just about a little extra incentive to go out there and make plays.”
Springs is one of my favorite guys. During my time on the Redskins beat, I often sought his opinion, and we share similar views on some topics. Not on this one.
Although Williams offered bonuses for big plays — sacks, interceptions fumble recoveries, etc. — the largest payouts were given for hits that injured opponents. The system was built on corrupt ideals.
That’s all that matters.
Many Redskins veterans admired Williams for how he aggressively attacked offenses. Under Williams, Washington’s defense was among the best in the league. Williams’s success helped to inspire loyalty in the locker room.
That’s where the problem starts: inside those doors. The gladiator mentality is developed in locker rooms. Coaches use it to their advantage. Williams exploited it.
“You can’t play in the NFL if you don’t think, at some point, you’re gonna go out there and try to knock the [wind] out of somebody,” Springs said. “We all know that. That’s the underlying rule of the NFL. So when it comes down to it, it’s gonna be him or me. But that’s within the rules of the game.
“What’s the first thing coaches say to kids in Pop Warner [youth football]? They say, ‘Go in there and hit somebody.’ They say, ‘You gotta knock his head off.’ And you know how many coaches and dads go out there and yell, ‘You gotta get him.’ So that’s instilled in you at an early age.”
Fans enjoy the NFL’s violence. If they didn’t, the league wouldn’t generate billions of dollars each year. There’s something alarming, however, about a coach administering a program targeting players to be injured.
That doesn’t fit with the notion of fair play, or simple human decency, most fans would expect from their favorite teams and players. And if fans lose belief in products, profits suffer.
Williams isn’t the only coach to have run a bounty system, NFL people say. The practice has been around for a long, long time.
It’s time for that to change. With what’s known about the long-term effects of concussions and other injuries common in the NFL, any type of under-the-table bonuses for inflicting injury must end.
The other troubling aspect of this mess is the notion, which several players expressed to me, that players should not have “ratted out” Williams.
As their thinking goes, what’s said in the locker room should stay in the locker room, which was one of Williams’s favorite sayings when he discussed bonuses with Washington’s players. That’s just another wrongheaded view.
When trying to change a bad practice that has been ingrained over years, honesty is what’s needed most.
Goodell faces a tall order, trying to change a culture that has been shaped and reinforced over many years. Making an example of Williams seems like a good place to start.
For Jason Reid’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/reid.
More on NFL bounties: