After Saints football scandal, NFL must end 'Hunger Games' culture

The NFL penalties against the New Orleans Saints football team for purposely injuring other players may not be enough to curb the game's excessive violence – or those fans who enjoy it.

Jim Hudelson/The Shreveport Times/AP Photo
New Orleans Saints football coach Sean Payton yells from the sideline during a Jan. 7 football game. The NFL suspended Payton for the 2012 season, and former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was banned from the league indefinitely because of the team's bounty program that targeted opposing players.

Fans of contact sports such as professional football sometimes admire players who hit an opponent hard. Just listen to the cheers when a defensive lineman sacks a quarterback like a fly swatter.

This popular fascination with sanctioned violence in sports is similar to the voyeurism in “The Hunger Games.” The new film depicts spectators enjoying a kill-or-be-killed contest among young people. It was inspired by TV reality shows like “Survivor” that also exploit this perverse passion to watch mutual destruction.

But pro sports are real, and it may be time to ask if fan admiration of the violence tolerated by the National Football League helped contribute to the atrocious scandal of the New Orleans Saints.

Between 2009 and 2011, the team ran a secret “bounty hunting” program, giving cash rewards to its players for intentionally inflicting a physical injury on an opposing player – especially a quarterback – to the point that he couldn’t play.

The NFL penalized the Saints with tough suspensions, a $500,000 fine, and the loss of draft picks. Coach Sean Payton was suspended without pay for the entire 2012 season.

The league’s severe penalties were meant to send a message to all players and coaches. They must avoid a “deliberate lack of concern for the well-being” of fellow players.

But that’s a difficult standard to measure when physical intimidation is “part of the game,” and it is easy to block the view of a referee in a violent tackle. The NFL admits it has work to do. “We have made significant progress in changing the culture with respect to player safety, and we are not going to relent,” said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

But part of that culture may be the many fans who welcome the violent smack-downs. That’s certainly true in professional hockey and boxing. Even in motorcar racing, many fans seek the thrill of a crash.

Often after a hometown football team wins a championship, fans erupt in celebratory violence, even to the point of rioting and causing death. Such hooliganism could in part reflect the mayhem fans witness in a game. Sportscasters, too, contribute by sometimes condoning rough play on the field.

The NFL’s conundrum of setting limits on violence in a game of hard contact is not easy to solve. So far, prosecutors have largely avoided seeking criminal charges against players who appear to purposely injure another player.

But the Saints scandal might put an end to law enforcement’s blind eye to sports violence. In addition, the most popular sport in the country has seen players become bigger and stronger, with more money at stake and more clever ways to hurt opponents.

Courts have generally avoided ruling on sports violence because sport is seen as “socially useful.” And players consent to a certain level of rough play. But fans as much as players need a stronger message than the NFL penalties, one firmly that implants the idea that intentional violence is not the norm.

A majority of NFL fans and players don’t want the kind of violence that the Saints meted out to opponents. If the NFL cannot stiffen its codes of conduct and its enforcement to meet those sentiments, then perhaps others – courts or Congress – should step in.

The NFL should remember why such team sports were popularized in the 19th century: to help prevent violence among young people. Today’s pro football should not continue as a model for mayhem.

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