The NFL’s distorted injury culture: Targeting and head-hunting have no place in football.

I have loved football since I was young. I loved watching on TV as Walter Jones and Ricky Watters took the field in the Kingdome in those hideous royal blue uniforms, or watching Jason Gesser or Jerome Harrison dominate the Pac-10 (before the addition of Utah and Colorado) for my beloved Cougs.

I also loved another aspect of the game: The physical contact that is inherently a part of the game. I loved standing on that football field in high school and watching my classmates hit each other, shoulder pads cracking together, the whoops and hollers of guys after a nice play or big hit was made.

It was exhilarating watching a player get lit up by a defender on television, watching in slow motion as the helmets would crack together, seeing the running back’s neck snap back due to the extreme impact and crumple onto the ground, and watching teammates of the opposing team rally around the man who dealt the blow in celebration.

I was taught to love it, just like those that taught me to love it were taught by someone else, and so on. Generations of football fans, teaching others to love not only the game of football, but to love the bone-crunching, teeth-rattling, devastating collisions that have been a part of the game for so long.

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However, since attending WSU and earning a Master’s degree in Sport Management (Go Cougs!) I have learned a lot about what goes into the game of football, and what it’s all really about. While my love for the game itself still holds strong, over these past 4 or 5 years my outlook on the game of football, and particularly the physical contact aspect of football, has changed drastically.

Football is truly one of the few remaining gladiator sports in modern day society. Along with sports such as mixed martial arts, hockey, rugby, and boxing, football is one of few remaining sports that encourages extreme physical contact. And in more cases than many people would like to believe, players are very often encouraged at a young age to not only physically dominate their opponent, but hurt them. Injure them. Put them out of the game entirely.

A perfect example of this is “Bountygate”, the scandal that arose from the New Orleans Saints after their 2011 Super Bowl victory. For those that don’t remember or aren’t aware of what happened, basically, players and assistant coaches chipped in money for a pool that would be used to reward players for big hits and other performance-based accomplishments, as well as rewards for knocking opposing players out of a game.

The game that has become the spotlight of Bountygate is the 2011 NFC Championship game between the Saints and the Minnesota Vikings where legendary quarterback Brett Favre endured one of the most brutal beatings of any quarterback in playoff history. Saints defenders repeatedly hit Favre late, targeted his knees and head, and seemingly did everything they could to knock him out of the game (albeit they were unsuccessful, someone should have told them Favre’s nickname wasn’t “Iron Man” for nothing). Nonetheless, anyone with an unbiased eye can watch a replay of that contest and see that the Saints were not just “playing aggressively”. They were head-hunting.

NFC Championship: Minnesota Vikings v New Orleans Saints

The Saints were punished for their actions, including a one-year ban for both head coach Sean Payton and then-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, as well as other infractions levied against the team. Bountygate has become somewhat of a poster-child for deterring teams from operating a bounty system, and thus far, it seemingly has worked.

However, I believe the problem at the heart of the issue has really been lost in the NFL’s money shuffle. The Saints were levied these infractions because people within the organization were paying players to injure opposing players. The problem they had from the scandal didn’t seem so much to stem from the fact that players were targeting other players in an effort to intentionally injure them; it was the fact that money was being used as an incentive to do so.

Here’s my question to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell: Is it ok to target and intend to injure opposing players if their motivation comes simply from a desire to win? In my opinion, the problem is the fact that players and coaches alike feel it is justified to injure another person for the sake of a single victory.

Now, with that in mind, let’s move ahead to the present. This week, former Seattle Seahawk and current New England Patriots cornerback Brandon Browner made some comments that drew the ire of some fans and players. In an interview, Browner encouraged his Patriot teammates to target Seahawks defensive backs Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman’s respective upper-body injuries, going as far as saying they should try to “break it” if they can, referring to Sherman’s elbow.

Browner went on to say that he holds no hard feelings toward Thomas, Sherman, or the rest of the Seahawks organization, saying that he considers them to be his brothers. And for what it’s worth, Sherman, Thomas, and Chancellor alike didn’t seem to have a problem with his comments thus far either (not surprising considering these are three of the toughest men in the NFL), although Seattle linebacker KJ Wright was none too pleased as he voiced his disappointment with Browner’s comments, saying that targeting an opposing player in an effort to injure them is “unacceptable and shouldn’t be in football.”

I believe it’s safe to say that Browner is telling the truth when he says there are no hard feelings toward Sherman or Thomas. I don’t believe he holds any grudges against them, and I do believe him when he says that those guys are like brothers to him. However, his affection toward his former teammates clearly does not trump his desire to win a Super Bowl. To back up this assertion all we have to do is go back to the comments he made about encouraging his teammates to target his “brothers”, and the fact that he stood behind these comments after the fact.

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To the average person who has never been a part of a football practice, inside a locker room, or seen the inside aspects of the game, Brandon Browner may sound like a monster of a person. How could anyone think that causing severe bodily harm that could potentially alter someone’s career trajectory, is ok? Especially when it is in the name of a game meant to be fun!

First off, Browner is not a monster. He’s a human being, maybe an angry human being with a passion for winning, but a human being nonetheless with most of his peers only having good things to say about him. The reason Browner, and many others within the NFL, NCAA, as well as high school and amateur football, feel this type of behavior is acceptable is because of the culture of football itself as a gladiator sport. To Americans, football is not just a game. It is a way of life. If you don’t believe that, go down to any small East-Texas town in September and you’ll quickly see what I mean.

With this comes a culture of extreme masculinity, and a win-at-all-costs mentality. This mentality is not something a football player is naturally born with, it must be taught. From a young age players are taught to “love the game”, and if every person involved in the support was involved simply for the “love of the game”, then we wouldn’t have problems with bounties and players targeting each other.

The problem is born from a desire to win-at-all-costs, and this desire morphs into a passion, and that passion develops into a need for that victory.

Coaches use this love that players have developed for the game to motivate their players, and foster an unrelenting necessity for victory. So, the game is no longer about the love, it’s all about winning and crushing your opponent. Obviously, competition and a desire to “win” is something that has been a part of human culture, not only American culture, for centuries. However, why in 21st century society is the “win” such a dire component of playing the game all of these men are supposedly involved in for the “love of the game”?
(Just to clarify the meaning behind this question, I wanted to make it clear that I am not one of those people that thinks we shouldn’t keep score in sports, but I do believe there are more important things in life than the almighty victory, the health of the players competing being one of those things.)

It is also out of a love for the money that is made from the game of football at the highest levels, and I’m not referring to the players on the field. NFL owners, as well as university boosters at the NCAA level, place extreme pressure on their coaches for victories because of the money that victories bring; people’s jobs literally depend on it.

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In turn, coaches from the NFL to the high school level do whatever it takes to win, including teaching players from a very young age that they should also do whatever it takes to win. Oftentimes, that means injuring the guy on the other team. They justify it with phrases like: “It’s just part of the game.” Or “It’s part of the competitive spirit.”

They have no qualms about setting another man’s career back, or perhaps even ending another man’s career and costing him thousands if not millions of potential dollars, for that one victory. Maybe they don’t think about the family that man supports, or the fact that breaking that man’s ankle, or serving him with a major concussion could have detrimental effects on that person until the day they die. Is winning a football game really worth that much?

As a person who loves the game of football and has been around the game for nearly my entire life, I say no. No victory is worth causing serious bodily harm to another. And until the game undergoes an extreme philosophical overhaul, this win-at-all-costs mentality will never go by the wayside. Old, rich, white men sit in their press boxes holding people’s jobs over their heads for their own entertainment, or supposed “love for the game”, and the downward pressure they create within their organizations trickles down into everyone involved in the game itself. Clear down to 8-year olds in pee-wee football being taught to “high-low” an opposing quarterback (a high-low hit is a dangerous and ethically questionable strategy of two defenders hitting a player simultaneously from either side, one aiming for the legs and the other aiming for the chest or helmet).

I believe that the game should be played honorably. Play hard, play legal, hit hard, hit legal. Physical contact is inherently a part of the game of football as we know it, and that won’t be changing anytime soon, however I do not believe intentionally injuring another player in the name of the almighty victory is an inherent part of the game. There is no honor in that.

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