Former New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator, Greg Williams, has been banned indefinitely from the NFL for his role as ringleader in the bounty hunting scandal that shocked the sports world. For the uninformed, Williams offered financial rewards to players who delivered crushing tackles that knocked out opponents from the game. Needless to say, this type of behavior is disgraceful. What he did as a coach and human being was beneath contempt. His punishment was severe, significant and justified.
Amidst all the controversy surrounding this story, however, I find it disturbing that the media has been squarely focused on the fact that Williams doled out money for these vicious tackles. Why aren’t they “crying foul” that he asked his players to injure or “take out” an opposing player? This is American football we are talking about, not the Roman Colosseum where spectators would watch as criminals killed each other! Football is not a friendly game, for sure, but it is a competition, not a death match.
Truthfully, I am not completely surprised. Coaches will never preach restraint when tackling an opponent. They will continue to urge linemen to sack the quarterback with all their might; to give him something to think about the next time he drops back for a pass. They will persist in teaching their corners and safeties to make sure the receiver “feels it” when he catches a pass across the middle of the field, so that he won’t come back over the middle again. Sports analysts recognize that these intimidating and devastating hits are legal, so why should they take issue with it? Regrettably, as we have seen time and time again, a “clean” but brutal tackle can cause serious injuries.
The challenge for the National Football League, then, is to recognize that no matter how determined they are to make player safety of paramount importance, there will always be push back from players and coaches. Teams will exploit all of the rules gray areas, and interpret them in ways that will challenge its authority. As we have seen, athletes often “stop at nothing” in the hope of gaining a competitive advantage. To them, winning at all costs in the immediacy of the moment is more beneficial than any long term brain damage to themselves or fellow comrades. That is precisely why they have decried the stricter rules, stating rather pompously, that the NFL isn’t for babies; it’s for real men. In order to protect the sanctity of football and the safety of its players, Roger Goodell must continue to remain vigilant in cracking down on tackles and hits that are illegal and excessive.
The reality is that this particular challenge is not unique to the NFL. Every sport, country, and religion, has a set of rules for participation in organized life. Year after year countless citizens, adherents, and athletes test the governing body’s established boundaries in an attempt to break the law without consequence. Because many of the rules are open to interpretation, each governing body has to determine when to act with leniency and when to act strictly. But there are always red lines that mustn’t be crossed; and when they occur, each governing body must act with toughness in order to restore order. Player safety has become the red line for the NFL, and I’m glad the Goodell isn’t taking it lightly.
The great rabbis of the 2nd temple era were faced with a similar challenge. They were wholly concerned about protecting and safeguarding the sanctity of the Bible and regularly preached against even coming close to violating one of its commandments. In order to protect its “red lines” they created a new category of law called “Rabbinic Law,” which took important and necessary steps to ensure the sanctity of the Torah and the spiritual safety of its adherents. In fact, the opening statement of Ethics of the Fathers relates the importance of Rabbinic law by urging us to “make a safeguard for the Torah.”
I hope that Goodell and the rest of the NFL executives will continue to make player safety a priority and not succumb to the tunnel vision of its athletes.