In case you missed the story, those players suspended because they participated in a pay to injure scheme when they were on the New Orleans Saints during the 2009-2011 seasons were reinstated by an appeals panel. This means that Jonathan Vilma, Scott Fujita, Will Smith, and unsigned free agent Anthony Hargrove are all free to play in this Sunday’s first games of the season.
Smith and Fujita are now with the Cleveland Browns. Vilma is still with the Saints, but unlikely to play due to injuries, and Hargrove does not have a team to go to yet. Vilma, who had been suspended for the whole season, and Fujita both celebrated the decision by tweeting about their happiness. Vilma said, “Victory is mine!” Of course, we do not know how long this party will last, but it is clear that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who instituted the suspensions, is not done with this case.
This ruling does not apply to New Orleans coaches Sean Payton and Joe Vitt or general manager Mickey Loomis. They were all involved in the bounty scandal, instigated by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, which paid players for hits on opposing players, especially those that injured them. While injuries have always been part of the NFL, those inflicted purposely and with an intent to hurt other players seem incredulously criminal to say the least. If this were happening on a street instead of the gridiron, those perpetrators surely would have landed in jail.
In light of the growing evidence that NFL players are three more times likely to suffer from brain disease and die from it, and with the spectre of suicides by players like Dave Duerson and Junior Seau likely connected to brain injuries, the concern for players and protecting them, especially from blows to the head, is not only reasonable but essential. Yet in a game that is a metaphor for war and is played for keeps, how do we stop a culture of violence, no matter how regulated we may want it to be?
In a heartbreaking cover story in Sports Illustrated about former NFL quarterback Jim McMahon, writer Melissa Segura chronicles the sad decline of the two-time Super Bowl winner, who suffers from “early-onset dementia” that is connected to four “documented concussions” McMahon suffered during his 15 years of playing in the NFL. The documented element is extremely crucial here, for who knows how many undocumented concussions McMahon (or any other player for that matter) had during his career.
McMahon’s case is a microcosm of a problem that the NFL has been addressing, with specific rules designed to stop things like Bounty Gate from happening again. In reaction to the appeals panel’s decision, NFL legal counsel Jeff Pash emphasized that “nothing in today’s decision contradicts any of the facts found in the investigation into this matter, or absolves any player of responsibility for conduct detrimental. Nor does the decision in any way suggest what discipline would be appropriate for conduct that lies within the authority of the Commissioner.”
It seems obvious that this is far from the end of the story, but the salient aspect of this announcement is that all NFL players are on notice that trying to injure other players purposely and for profit is against the rules; however, as the steroid scandal in Major League Baseball clearly shows, there are players who think they are above the rules and will try to do anything to have an edge, to get ahead, and win the game and accolades. Even when they are exposed and humiliated, it seems these players just don’t get the message.
As in all sports, we must recognize that children make up a large portion of the fan base. Players who do these kinds of things have to remember that not only are the kids watching but they are holding the players up as heroes, role models, and want to be just like them. How truly sad it is that some of these players not only do not belong on that pedestal but anywhere near the playing field.
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