Four days after the NFL's Black Sunday of 2010, I sat across from Ray Lewis in the Ravens' locker room. It was a time of righteous posturing around the league, after a gameday littered with vicious hits and head injuries had compelled Roger Goodell to pound his commissioner's gavel in the name of player safety, mandating stringent emphasis of the rules. Lewis, for whom any interview is also a piece of performance art, argued for the defense in a raspy whisper, punching the air for emphasis. He talked about Dick Butkus and Jack Lambert and the loss of something essential. He called it a bitter subject.
This is an article from the March 12, 2012 issue
Then he went further. "When I was first in the league, we'd go into defensive meetings," said Lewis. "And they were all about who was going to get that big hit. That can't change. That hit instantly changes the emotion of the game. 'It's your risk if you run over [into my territory].'" So there it was. It's not about the hit itself, it's about everything that happens afterward. It's about creating an environment in which one man makes another man do his job poorly for fear of the pain that might accompany his doing it right.
I thought about this last weekend as the football world agonized over the news that the Saints had operated a bounty system that included incentive payments for knocking out opponents. The condemnation was universal, as it should have been for anything that encourages the deliberate injuring of players. But as I think back to Lewis—and to others, like Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, who said to me last summer, "When you start conforming to these [new] rules, you take away the aspect of fear, and overcoming that fear is what makes us men"—I suspect that the bounties were a more complex issue that straddles the line between the NFL we watch in high definition and the game that's played on the field.
Last Saturday, I called Jeff Zgonina, a retired lineman whom I profiled for SI in the fall of 2009. Zgonina played 17 years for eight teams and may have sat in on a wider variety of defensive meetings than any other player. "I can't speak for the Saints," he said. "But it sounds to me like a motivational thing, where it's not really about the money, it's about trying to create a team atmosphere. You know, 'We're badasses, we run to the ball, we're going to be intimidating.' We all know there are teams in the league that play with that attitude. It's about creating a culture in the locker room."
Football's language is full of intimidating buzzwords. A receiver "hears footsteps" when running across the middle or "turtles" to avoid a hit. My father played small-college football and instructed me on the ways of the game by quoting a teammate who would say, before every play, "Make 'em go back to the huddle talking about you!" Members of the Giants team that took down the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII still talk about how hesitant Tom Brady was after getting bull-rushed all evening. All of this is as old as Red Grange's cleats.
The technical aspects of pro football are better understood with each passing year. Serious fans can diagram a wheel route or a Cover Two. The psychological battle runs far deeper, rooted in the politics of intimidation and the conveyance of fear. By any means necessary.