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The NFL Bounty Scandal Is a Labor Issue As Well As a Safety Issue

It’s awful to hear the news that the during their recent great years, the Saints were involved in a system that offered players bounties if they injured the players on opposing teams. The scandal is a setback for the NFL’s efforts to make football a safer, more sustainable game, showing that team and player cultures are fiercely resistant to that league-wide imperative. But it’s also a failure of the NFL collective bargaining agreement by the players who ought to be protected by it, and an illustration of the difficult web of financial incentives players negotiate.

The explanation of how the bounty system worked is a fascinating look at the financial stratification within NFL teams. The bounty system was organized by the Saints’ former defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, and he kept running the system even after he was specifically ordered by the team to shut it down. But the bounties themselves were offered — and paid — not by the team but by Saints players to Saints players. And they worked as incentives because special teams players who are in a position to inflict those injuries make less than the teammates who offered them the bounties. And that doesn’t even always work out. As Deadspin pointed out, the fines Bobby McCray was assessed for a hit to Brett Favre probably cost him more than he made based on the report’s assessment of what he would have made in bounties.

But however complicated the financial interests are here — and even scarier than the fact the bounties were being offered in the locker room is the news that folks outside the team appeared to be ponying up money — it’s a worrisome illustration of how the league’s compensation patterns could make bounties seem worth reaching for, and could lead to them violating their own collective bargaining agreement. It’s hard to believe that the Saints or any other team would offer bounties in the expectation that they were the only team doing it. And if everyone’s ignoring the collective bargaining agreement’s ban on bounties, then everyone’s ramping up their own risk of being injured by participating in the system. I don’t envy the NFL and the players’ union the task of tweaking those incentives and enforcement to try to make the ban on bounties operative.

Especially since players are coming into the NFL after years of a training that incentivizes hard hits, even if there pride rather than money at stake. I do think that there is a difference between a reward for making a good play and a reward specifically for injuring someone. But I don’t know how meaningful that difference is. I love football, and I struggle with that love and my questions about whether the game as played can be made safer while still remaining exciting.

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