NFL 'Bounty Systems' Are Barbaric, Counter-Productive, and Probably Illegal

Last Friday, the NFL announced that for the last three seasons, New Orleans Saints players and coaches administered a system that offered defensive players cash rewards for inflicting game-ending injuries on opposing players.   

Current and former players have disagreed about whether such “bounty” systems are a part of the game, or out-of-bounds. Former NFL MVP Kurt Warner was not surprised, but said, “I don’t think there’s any place in [the NFL] for trying to injure people.” Former NFL MVP Brett Favre, however, didn’t object to the bounty program, even when confronted with the news that one Saints player offered $10,000 to anyone who could knock him out of the 2009 NFL Championship game. Favre simply said, “I’m not pissed. It’s football.”

Regardless of the players’ views, any efforts to intentionally hurt each other are barbaric and counter-productive, and probably illegal.

By valuing success on the field over a colleague’s short and long-term quality of life, the bounty program shows that some NFL players have a barbarically stunted sense of what is important in life. Sadly, the fact that grown athletes believe that success on the field is this important is perhaps to be expected considering the increasingly competitive, time-consuming environments that younger and younger children experience while playing organized sports. Though enthusiastic parents and coaches may have the best of intentions, my own experiences as a high school soccer coach have left me with no doubt that too many children who play, travel, club, select, or AAU sports have gained the impression that what they are doing on the field is more important than it is. 

Pro athletes are paid to win, and they should try very hard to do so. Yet if the bounty program proves anything, it’s proven that some NFL players fail to understand that winning isn’t everything. NFL players should hold humanity in higher regard, show that they respect themselves and their colleagues, and commit themselves to setting a good example for children by eliminating bounties.

The bounty program may also be illegal because of the bounty program’s implications for the “assumption of risk” legal doctrine. The assumption of risk doctrine is the reason that tackling someone in an NFL game is legal, while hitting someone the same way on the street is illegal. In the United States, courts have ruled that those who participate in sports accept risks that are “obvious and necessary.” While accepting the risk that one could be accidentally injured playing NFL football is clearly “obvious and necessary,” accepting the risk that an opponent could not just intentionally hurt someone, but intentionally hurt someone for money, seems to exceed the level of risk that is obviously inherent in playing the game. In the coming weeks, it will be interesting to see whether anyone who thinks they were victimized by the bounty system sues the NFL, the New Orleans Saints, or the coaches or players who participated in the system.

Efforts to purposely injure players also hurt the quality of the NFL’s product, which hurts everyone involved with the NFL. The players that are on the field during an NFL game have competed for years to become to very best at their craft. If the best players are injured and cannot play, the game’s talent level drops, the quality of the competition suffers, and the NFL’s product is diminished. As a case in point, look no further than last year’s Indianapolis Colts team to see how an injury to a key player can hurt a team’s marketability. Without injured star quarterback Peyton Manning, the Colts went from one of the league’s most enjoyable teams to watch to virtually unwatchable, as the Colts tied for the worst record in the NFL.     

The NFL has long recognized that, though their teams compete with each other on the field, each team contributes to a shared overall product. The NFL has reflected their belief in a shared overall product by instituting revenue sharing policies between teams throughout the NFL. Players’ efforts to intentionally hurt each other are thus foolish and counter-productive because excluding the best players hurts the NFL’s product, and ultimately every other team in the process, including one’s own. 

NFL bounties are thus barbaric, counter-productive, and probably illegal, and the NFL is right to attempt to eliminate them in the future.

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