By NICK CHILES
The revelation that NFL teams such as the New Orleans Saints and Washington Redskins employed a “bounty” system that financially rewarded players for injuring their opponents has rocked the sports world like a well-placed pipe bomb. The news comes at a time when the NFL has been desperately trying to reduce the number of vicious hits and when we have been reading a steady stream of painful tales about former players suffering brain damage because of the hits they took over their careers. While I am disturbed by the bounty story, I am even more outraged by the reaction of many current and former players. These guys claim to not understand why the public is upset by this story. Former All-Pro linebacker Lavar Arrington called the public’s reaction “strange.” After all, football is a violent sport, guys get hurt all the time, what’s the big deal?
What their reaction tells me is that they are totally detached from their earliest days in the sport, when football was something they played for enjoyment, not to hurt somebody. And most disturbingly, they are completely removed from the everyday reality of millions of peewee and high school football players across the land.
My son is a college football player. He has been playing the sport since he was about seven years old. He loves football—so much that he plays it for free, while holding down an extremely tough environmental engineering courseload at academically rigorous Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. Now that’s love.
Over the last decade or so, I have come to watch football as a parent. What that means is that I don’t cheer for any player to tear another player’s head off. Because every player out on that field is somebody’s child. Any of those players could one day be my child.
In the early years of a child’s football career, the player across the line of scrimmage could be a best friend, a classmate, a neighbor—a kid who just happens to be on the other team because his parents paid the registration fee a couple weeks later than yours did. After the game, you might be sitting next to him for the car ride home. When the whistle blows at the start of the game, you compete as hard as you can. But nowhere in your heart sits a desire to inflict long-lasting damage.
When my son was a high school sophomore, one of his teammates—a kid that he regularly joked with in the locker room and the cafeteria—went across the middle to catch a pass, put his head down and fought with a few tacklers to gain a few extra yards, and was then hit on his helmet by another kid flying into the play helmet first. When they finally carried him off the field about a half hour later, my son’s friend was a paraplegic, confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Having witnessed an incident such as that one, having watched my son play against kids that were his homies off the field, I don’t have a hard time seeing every player in a helmet and pads as somebody’s child.
Both of my daughters play competitive soccer, a sport that also has its own share of hard hits. During games, we are sitting no more than 10 or 15 feet away from the parents of their opponents. In fact, the goalie for one of her team’s fiercest rivals happens to be my daughter’s best friend—and she certainly doesn’t mind kicking cannon shots straight at that girl’s head during the games. And when my daughter levels another player and sends her flying, the wails of protest coming from the other parents make it very plain—every player on the field is somebody’s child.
When does it happen that the players and coaches in the NFL stop believing in the humanity of the players across the line of scrimmage? When do those other players become a flesh-and-blood target representing dollar signs? According to the NFL, the Saints players would all pay money into a “bounty” fund and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams would dole out payments based on game performance. As many as 27 players were paid rewards of up to $1,500 for hits that resulted in a player being knocked out of the game or carried off the field. And they can’t understand why I’m outraged?
I’m a Falcons season ticket holder; I get a chance regularly to watch fan reaction to vicious hits. While there may be a half-second of thrill from the collision, what the fans are hoping most of all is that the player gets up and returns to the line of scrimmage. Even players on the other team. When it happens, we all cheer very loudly. We are not there to see anybody maimed or paralyzed. We just want to see some good, clean, hard-hitting football. No concussions. No broken bones. No ACL tears or separated shoulders. Just football. Because deep in our hearts, we know that everybody on that field is somebody’s child. A bounty? Brothers being paid to end each other’s careers? I am thoroughly shaken and disgusted.
Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.