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Goodell's mission to make NFL players safe an impossible one


The effort to make pro football safer is fascinating. It reminds me of restaurants that only serve meat from animals raised responsibly in a free-range environment. It's a nice idea with good intentions, but I still wouldn't want to be the chicken.

Roger Goodell is trying to clean up his sport, and I respect that. But it's like cleaning up dirt. Goodell may be appalled that the New Orleans Saints offered bounties for injuring opposing players, and that's great. I'm appalled, too.

But forget everything you know about football for a second. Now, imagine if I told you I wanted you to put on pads and a hard helmet and run 50 yards down the field and knock a guy on his butt.

Just don't hurt him.

Ridiculous, right?

Well, that's what Goodell is saying. He has several reasons for this: legal protection for his league, which has been sued by injured former players and could be sued by future ones; public relations; and a genuine concern for the health of his players. But it doesn't make the statement any more reasonable.

The Saints, led by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, simply jumped over the line from pretending they weren't trying to hurt opposing players to admitting they really were. I bet I've heard 100 NFL players over the years say they wanted to "see what (so-and-so) does when he gets punched in the mouth" or "my job is to beat up the guy in front of me" or "we need to put those guys on their asses." This is not just part of their sport. For the guys who don't touch the ball very often, it is their sport.

Now, what can Goodell do about that? Well, the NFL can change its rules and be sensitive to concussions and fine the holy heck out of the Saints. And that is all good. But if you have ever stood on the sideline for a single NFL series, or seen the limps and grimaces in the locker room afterward, or talked to a former star who says he wishes he never played the sport, you understand that Goodell's challenge is almost impossible.

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Hey, the Saints were wrong, and I don't believe that what happened in New Orleans "happens in every locker room." There is a moral difference between paying people to injure opponents and paying them for great football plays.

But there is a reason you haven't heard a bit of outrage from NFL players. They understand that players on almost every team offer each other cash awards for big hits. This is partly because young millionaire athletes spend money in whatever way amuses them -- I mean, if a player will offer a teammate $10,000 just to give up his uniform number, why wouldn't he offer $2,000 for a jarring tackle?

Players also understand that coaches expect them to play through injuries, and demand that they hit opponents as hard as they legally can. NFL coaches may not want to knock opposing players out of the game, but they all want their guys to hit opponents so hard, they might get knocked out of the game. What Gregg Williams did was drop the pretense.

Imagine the reaction if a pitching coach gave his starters money every time they nailed a cleanup hitter with a fastball. Or if NBA assistant coaches gave out cash for elbows to the face. People in those sports would express their disgust at the cheap shots, and the coaches in question might never work again. Yet I would rather get hit with a fastball or take an elbow to the face than play one game in the NFL.

For decades, the NFL took great pride in this. Those other sports were for sissies, wusses, weaklings, soft people -- the terms changed over the years, but the sentiment didn't. Then came a slew of stories of former players who could barely walk or think. And a slew of complaints from former players about their tiny pensions. And then the concussion issue became a major ongoing story, and players are suing the NFL, and ... well, figuratively and literally, the NFL can't play by its old rules anymore.

This is why Williams is 19 kinds of screwed. He tried this in the wrong era. The NFL will surely suspend him. (My completely uninformed guess: He will be suspended for at least a year. If Goodell suspends Williams for, say, eight games, then all of a sudden there will be a bunch of "Gregg Williams is back" stories, and related "Are bounties still common in the NFL?" stories, right when the playoff race gets hot. The league doesn't want that. Plus, the NFL can't let Williams coach when the Rams play the Patriots in London in late October, because then he'll have to pay his bounties in pounds.)

The Rams may fire him. I would. Why not? I mean, you can understand why the Saints would keep Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis -- those guys won a Super Bowl there. What has Williams done in St. Louis? The Rams should fire him now, say this was all news to them, and be done with it.

Worst of all for Williams: Somewhere out there, some former or current NFL players are grabbing their necks, or trying to straighten their legs, or, most disturbingly, trying to remember their home address. Those players suffered injuries when they were hit by players coached by Gregg Williams. I bet that some lawyer already has a bounty on Williams' bank account.

Again: I don't question the sincerity of Goodell's intentions. I question the feasibility of his task. The league's official policy is that coaches should not encourage players to injure each other. Unfortunately, this doesn't mesh well with another league initiative: playing football.