The New Orleans Saints coaches were recently penalized heavily by NFL commission Roger Goodell for the bounty program the team had for the last three seasons. Saints head coach Sean Payton was notably suspended the entire 2012 season. According to the NFL’s official report: The program included “bounty” payments for “knock-outs” and “cart-offs,” plays on which an opposing player was forced to leave the game. At times, the bounties even targeted specific players by name.
Almost all pundit commentary on the matter applauded Goodell’s heavy penalties, and after Saints quarterback Drew Brees tweeted essentially that Payton’s punishment was so unfair he was dumbfounded, Stephen A. Smith responded on NFL First Take that Brees tweeting that he was dumbfounded dumbfounded him.
“These athletes sometimes drive me nuts,” Smith said. “Learn to shut up. There are certain things you cannot defend. And not only that, it shreds your credibility. Because when you don’t know when to shut up, and you try to defend the indefensible, when the moment comes that there’s something viable to defend, nobody wants to hear you.”
Smith’s point is an oftentimes valid one. It probably was valid in this case. But the point I want to make is in a different vein.
Smith said the Saints bounty program is “indefensible.” It’s true. Any team in any sport
having a program meant to hurt other players is indefensible. The idea of it makes us question our faith in humanity. Smith addressed the Saints people who participated in this program by saying, “[You went] against your own brothers.”
But the thing is, no brothers got hurt. Even though this program was meant to hurt opposing football players, it didn’t. If you’ve ever played a sport, you kind of know that it basically rarely could have.
When you’re playing a team sport, you’re very focused on whatever the goal of it happens to be – kicking a ball into a goal or putting an opponent on the ground. In the actual moments when you need to do these stressful things, you do the one thing everyone in a stressful situation does – focus on the stressful situation. You completely focus. You don’t think about what you did last night or what you’re going to do tonight or anything else. In the actual moments, your mind only has room to think about the actual moments.
I imagine this is true even for professional defensive linemen and linebackers and safeties. When the whistle blows, they want to tackle whoever has the ball. Tackling whoever has the ball is all they want to do. Tackling whoever has the ball is all they can think about doing.
In these moments, defensive football players cannot think about anything other than tackling whoever has the ball. They cannot think about money they might get if they tackle more viciously, or even, many times, about tackling more viciously. These moments breed actions of necessity, not malice.
If anyone bothered to speak with Saints players who participated in the bounty program about how it made them play, I think it’s more than possible they would say it did not make them do their jobs any differently than they would have if it didn’t exist.
The intentions of the people responsible for the Saints bounty program are evil. That is probably correct. The game-moment mindsets of the Saints defensive players, though, were probably pretty similar to the game-moment mindsets of defensive players from the NFL’s other 31 teams.