Senate Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin will head a Judiciary Committee hearing on bounties following revelations that the New Orleans Saints operated a bounty program that, among other things, gave cash rewards to injure opposing players. Even while lauding the actions of National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell for doling out punishment “swiftly once a bounty program was discovered,” Durbin plans to hold the hearing to determine whether such bounty schemes in sports should be punishable by federal bribery laws.
Given Mr. Goodell’s already stringent punishment for those Saints members who participated, Senator Durbin is unnecessarily and dangerously looking to expand federal law into the NFL’s already proven policies that promote player safety. The NFL has shown itself capable of punishing violent conduct within its league. Moreover, if federal law expands to include bounties, law enforcement would gain a broad investigatory and punishing power that would unjustifiably threaten privacy, given the NFL’s ability to regulate the conduct of its own players.
The Saints punishment, which Durbin describes as “decisive and historic,” included the suspension of head coach Sean Payton for all of next season and the forfeiture of several future draft picks. Goodell is still deciding on punishments for players involved, such as Saints linebacker Jonathon Vilma, who allegedly offered a $10,000 reward for knocking out Brett Favre, then quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings, in the 2010 NFC Championship. The NFL has not ruled out speaking with Durbin but emphasizes that Goodell “has taken strong actions to ensure that bounties are eliminated from the NFL.”
The NFL and its referees have also shown a willingness to punish violent conduct by enforcing its own rules within games. Ndamukong Suh was ejected from a game and subsequently suspended for two more without pay after stomping on an opponent. The league also suspended Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison for a jarring hit on Cleveland Browns Quarterback Colt McCoy. The NFL can enforce the rules it already has in place to control violent plays and discourage bounties that may lead to such violent plays.
James Harrison suspended after jarring hit on Colt McCoy
Apart from being unnecessary to control bounties, federal law would subject bounty participants to criminal investigation and punishment. This is a dangerous expansion of federal law enforcement power. Durbin asserts that providing financial incentives, “money or otherwise,” to injure opposing players would be a crime if the federal government decides to insert its lawmaking power into “professional and collegiate sports organizations.” Situations such as Vilma’s $10,000 reward for injuring Brett Favre might be clear cut enough to punish under such a statute, but rewards can take many forms. Would spotting a few NFL linebackers at an expensive restaurant buying dinner for a defensive end who knocked a quarterback out of a game be sufficient evidence to conclude they were rewarding that player for fulfilling a bounty? Would law enforcement be brazen enough to investigate whether or not money was exchanging hands among a group of defenders that knock out prominent opponents in successive weeks? At what point would law enforcement attempts to secure player safety invade individual privacy?
Discussion of making bounties a federal crime is unnecessary. The NFL has its own mechanisms for dealing with bounties, and violence in general, within its league. More concerning is Durbin’s attempt to inject federal law enforcement into the workings of a private organization to criminally punish private bounty systems that can be very discrete and difficult to identify. The NFL does not need government to help it with its bounty problem.