Cash For Hits Has Some Calling Foul on NFL

Many football fans are stunned by news that one defensive coordinator in the NFL created a bounty system that paid some players to knock opponents out of games. But some former players suggest the practice is more common than fans might think. Host Michel Martin talks with The Nation's Dave Zirin and sports law professor Gabe Feldman.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are going to spend some time today talking about two issues in the news that are on a lot of people's minds, and they both touch on violence. Later in our parenting segment, we are going to talk about what we really know about why young people turn to deadly violence. We're thinking about this, of course, after that school shooting in Ohio that left three students dead.

We'll find out what the latest research shows about this and it turns out there's a quite a bit of it. And equally important we want to talk about what we can do to act on that knowledge. But first, we want to take a look at violence in a very different arena - professional football - and whether some of what motivates the level of violence is money. We're talking about news reports that some team officials used a bounty system to motivate certain behavior in games.

Yesterday, Greg Williams, the former defensive coordinator for the New Orleans Saints, met with NFL officials about a bounty system that that team allegedly used. According to a league investigation, the Saints rewarded players with thousand dollar pay-offs for knocking key opponents out of games. Some current and former NFL players say bounty systems are common throughout the league, but the news has shocked many fans and grabbed media headlines.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called upon Dave Zirin, sports columnist for The Nation. Also with us, Gabe Feldman, law professor and the director of the sports law program at Tulane University Law School. Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.

DAVE ZIRIN: Oh, great to be here, thank you.

GABE FELDMAN: Thank you for having me on.

MARTIN: So Dave, I know you have an opinion about this, but before you get to that, I just want to ask you, you know, what do we know about this? For example, how widespread is this practice believed to have been, and how is the NFL leadership responding?

ZIRIN: Well, Michel, every player that I have talked with, every tweet that I have read, every commentary on the radio points to the idea that not only is this widespread in the NFL but the idea of a locker room bounty system where people are paid with a pool of money, it goes in the college level, the high school level, even in the youth sports level. It's something that...

MARTIN: But you're not saying that youth sports people get paid to hit hard?

ZIRIN: Well, one person...

MARTIN: You're saying they get rewarded.

ZIRIN: One person called in to ESPN's national radio program, "Mike and Mike in the Morning," to talk about they do something on their youth league team called the Captain Crunch Award, where the young child who hits the hardest during the game actually gets a box of Captain Crunch cereal, so that says to me about something that's very pernicious and very widespread and not something that starts in the NFL.

MARTIN: Well, what then do you think underlies the outrage about this? Because we hear that there are, you know, heavy fines being considered here.

ZIRIN: I think the number one thing that outlines the outrage is that there is a lot of pressure on the National Football League to look like they're taking a stand against violence right now, and that exists for a number of reasons. First of all, it's a priority of the National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell to expand the season to eighteen games. It's the most popular sport in America. They think it can be more popular and make even more money. That's the tough sell on that, is the idea that the sport is too violent and players will get too injured.

So they want to figure out a way to regulate the violence. The second issue that makes this so important for the NFL to crack down on is there currently - I believe the number is six, currently, class action lawsuits pending against the National Football League by former players because of the effects of concussions on the game. And so this is also about a message, I believe, to the legal community and the judicial community that the NFL is serious about violence, because that's what could cripple this monolith, this leviathan that is the NFL.

It's a $9 billion a year business. They project it as being as much as $25 billion a year over the next generation. The one thing that they feel could alter that trajectory is this issue of violence and legality and class action lawsuits.

MARTIN: Gabe Feldman, that sort of leads us to you. We were wondering whether there might be legal ramifications to what is being reported here.

FELDMAN: There are potential legal ramifications. There's certainly the possibility that we could see some players who are injured by these hits bringing civil lawsuits. I think it's unlikely for a couple of reasons. One is that it's just not very common for players who play professional sports to bring civil lawsuits for injuries that arise during the play of game, and the second and perhaps more difficult obstacle for a player who wants to bring this lawsuit is that it's just a very difficult case to win because players assume a lot of risk when they step on a professional football field.

MARTIN: I was going to ask about that.

FELDMAN: It's an inherently dangerous...

MARTIN: Yeah.

FELDMAN: Sorry. It's an inherently dangerous game.

MARTIN: That was my question, is don't they assume a certain amount of risk when they sign up for the NFL? So how would this differ from the amount of risk that they assume as just a - as a course of events? I mean, as DeMaurice Smith the head of the NFL players union, the current head of the NFL players union, said on this program, that this is a game with a 100 percent injury rate.

FELDMAN: Right, and the idea is that some injuries are unavoidable. But the question is, have the players by participating in these bounty plans, have they enhanced the inherent risk of this sport? And so players assume the risk of injury caused by a tackle in the normal course of the game, they don't assume the risk and can't assume the risk, can't consent to injuries caused by hits delivered with the intent to actually injure.

And so that would be the argument. The problem for any case, whether it's civil litigation or criminal litigation, is it's almost going to be impossible to prove that the injury was caused by a hit with the actual intent to injure as opposed to just an unavoidable injury that occurs every game in the NFL.

MARTIN: Dave Zirin?

ZIRIN: I just wanted to add to that, and while, yes, there is an assumption of risk, it's worth noting that NFL players don't actually sign a waiver like the sort of thing that, say, a person would sign if they're going to go on a parachute jump or something. You don't sign that with your NFL contract, and that's what opens the door for possible civil or criminal prosecution.

MARTIN: Well, you're also saying that there might be tax implications, Dave.

ZIRIN: Yeah...

MARTIN: Because this is income, that doesn't - you can't imagine this showing up on somebody's, you know, tax return, but it also seems, and it's been reported, that some players could equal their salaries, and I don't understand how that's possible. And if you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about news that players in the NFL, at least in some teams, seem to have been rewarded under a bounty system for specific type of play, but it has been reported that even taking another player out of the game with a hard enough hit.

I'm speaking with sports writer Dave Zirin and sports law professor Gabe Feldman. So Dave Zirin, how is that possible?

ZIRIN: Well, this is why the New Orleans Saints will be made a brutal example of, even though this is something that's seen as widespread throughout the league, with their former defense coordinator Greg Williams possibly even facing a lifetime ban from the league. I mean, it's - they're taking it that seriously. And two of the reasons are what you just said. The first are tax reasons. The IRS could be looking into this because of the amounts involved.

I mean while you have bounties going back, as I said, to Captain Crunch and the youth leagues, when you're talking about NFL players who make millions of dollars and they're putting in their own money, there is talk about the bounties - and this is just what we know - going up as high as $50,000. Now, when you're talking about, say, a special teams player who makes three to four hundred thousand dollars a year, and special teams, from what I've read, are one of the places where the bounties are most implemented, you're talking about a situation where players can make equal or close to equal of their yearly salary over the course of the season.

The other part is the issue of the salary cap, and this is what, once again, has the NFL wanting to make an example of the Saints. It's seen as a way to circumvent the salary cap, because there's only a certain amount of money that each team can spend on players during a given season and it is against NFL guidelines to pony up money to make up the difference for players who feel like they should be making more because of the violence or ferocity of their hits.

MARTIN: Gabe Feldman, you've been looking at conditions(ph) like this over a long period of time. Is this kind of a novel area of - sort of a as a legal area? Is this a bit uncharted or is this actually something that has been discussed for some time but it just somehow or another(ph) hasn't really surfaced outside of the closed professional circles?

FELDMAN: Well, legal challenges to a bounty system is pretty uncharted territory. Civil litigation or criminal litigation involving physical violence on the field or on the ice is not uncommon. It's rare but it's not uncommon. Most of the cases come up in the National Hockey League and in Canadian courts and there's a case pending right now involving a hit by Todd Bertuzzi on an NHL player that the player who was hit suffered severe injuries, lost his career, sued not only Bertuzzi but also the coach of the team, the GM of the team and the team itself. Because the idea in the NHL is that you actually have players who are designated as goons to go out and injure star players on the other team.

So the idea that there are players who are going out there trying to inflict pain and injury and intimidation on other players is not new in professional sports. The idea that there is a defensive coordinator in the NFL paying NFL players to intentionally injure players - that's new to us. I mean, there isn't any litigation surrounding that.

There is litigation in the past for NFL players where they have gone outside what would be considered the ordinary range of conduct that's acceptable in the NFL, so punches that were delivered after the play was over.

One of the more famous examples involves the NBA where Rudy Tomjanovich was punched in the face during the stoppage of play. It basically ended his career and he filed a civil suit and won a $3.25 million jury verdict.

MARTIN: Dave...

FELDMAN: But - yeah. Sorry, go ahead.

MARTIN: Dave Zirin, I'm going to give you the final word because I did mention that you do have an opinion about this and I wanted to - and I said that we would get to that - and I would like to.

You wrote a blog post in The Nation saying this is an inherently dirty game with a real body count. Its main business isn't a race to the Super Bowl, but to present raw violence in a way that's palatable for mass consumption.

Now, that's something that the top officials - in fact, the Players Union - all say is not true, that this is not a gladiator sport, that this is really about, you know, gaining territory.

So what's your opinion about where this goes next?

ZIRIN: The statistics tell another story and I think where this goes next is about Roger Goodell attempting to have an entire ton of bricks fall on the back of Greg Williams and the New Orleans Saints as an example for the rest of the National Football League and as a message to say that this kind of thing won't be tolerated.

But I would argue that it's a smokescreen to cover up the fact that, even if all of this is obliterated from the NFL, it's such an inherently violent sport and the way it gets a mass audience, I would argue, is by hiding the true effects of that violence, the fact that people die decades earlier than the typical American male, early onset Alzheimer's disease, depression, the inability to relate with family members. I mean, ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease.

I mean, the repercussions for the post-playing career of an NFL player is just so horrific and I think that this is a way of saying, hey, we're serious about violence when, at the end of the day, it is a violent sport and that's what the league and its fans need to come to terms with.

MARTIN: Dave Zirin is a columnist and blogger for The Nation. He was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Gabe Feldman is a law professor and director of the Sports Law Program at Tulane University Law School. He also blogs about sports and law for the Huffington Post. We caught up with him in New Orleans.

Gentlemen, thank you both so much.

FELDMAN: Thank you.

ZIRIN: Thank you.

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