The NFL has “done the right thing” suspending and fining coaches for outright or tacitly supporting injury bounties. While the rewards for winning in the NFL are great, the health risks are high, especially if players are intentionally trying to injure each other. I always considered it a privilege to play against another person or team and taken satisfaction from a game well played. I guess it does not surprise me, but it does leave me cold, that players are willing to influence the game by injuring a fellow player. I once proposed that the player causing injury sit out until the injured player returns to play. For those players “convicted” of injurious play, the penalty and suspensions would be served beginning with the return of the victim. I thought this would give financial and career incentive to “play nice in the sandbox.”
The recent news that the New Orleans Saints paid players to injure opponents was, unfortunately, not unexpected. I used the double negative in the statement to emphasize that it is not a behavior that should be expected or condoned by players, coaches, or sport administrators. Contact and collision sports have inherent injury risk, and career-ending injuries can put an end to participation in highly competitive sports. Players do not need “extra” help getting hurt and true competition should pit the best against the best, with the group who plays at its peak winning, not the team who can most injure the other side.
Why was this news “not unexpected”? I was involved in a study of youth ice hockey several years ago. We queried the athletes about behaviors like hitting opponents to hurt them, injuring an opponent to win a game, and having been instructed by a coach to hurt an opposing player. The answers to all these questions should have been “no,” at least in my mind, but to my dismay, there were many “yes” answers. The full data set did not pass muster with the institutional review board, so the data were never published.
In the interim, there have been several sports safety programs produced, which emphasize injury prevention and safe play. Safe play starts with coaches at the youth, high school, and college level, who not only teach safe play but also enforce it by benching players who break the rules, especially flagrant violations with injury potential. The next safety layer is the game officials who apply the rules to the game situation and make the rule calls consistently with an emphasis on player safety and health. Sports rules are there to protect players, and much like traffic rule infractions, errant behavior results in accidents and injury.
It also appears there is added reason to play safe and stay healthy. According to reports in a recent issue of Sports Illustrated, players with concussions are being moved down or off the professional draft lists. This should be of major concern to high school and college players if sustaining concussion becomes a draft or scholarship buster. When I was in high school in the 1960s, more than one player from my school was dropped from the scholarship list for having a “ruined” knee (translated as anterior cruciate ligament disruption and instability) that is now easily and regularly reconstructed in high school-age athletes. I do not think we will have a “fix” for concussion downstream consequences.
In the end, it comes down to player respect: respect for each other as players and respect for the honor of playing against another athlete for the right to be the best in that contest–not to be the player who can injure the opposition to win. Paying players to injure others, coaching players to injure others, and allowing players to injure others all lead down a slippery slope away from fair contests and safe play. The NFL finally got it right; what took them so long and when will other sports follow suit?