NFL 'bounty' system stemmed from fans' lust for violence

The New Orleans Saints, shown here against the San Francisco 49ers, are subject of uproar over "pay  for perfomance" system

Story highlights

  • Don McPherson says in his early career, payouts for "big hits" were common
  • He says the amount is far less, and no individual players were targeted
  • He says as a player, he didn't think of the game's violence; fans and players expect it
  • McPherson: If fans are appalled by "bounty system," they should lower their lust for violence

"Give the man his money."

That was the demand from Jerome Brown, my teammate when I played for the Philadelphia Eagles more than 20 years ago. It was a Saturday night and we were having one of our regular special team meetings, where we'd watch highlights from the previous week and review the big hits and plays.

Jerome was calling for the $100 reward that a player had coming to him for an interception or forcing a fumble or, of course, the de-cleating big hit. It was 1988 and I was in the NFL that I was raised on. I dreamed about being a player in that highlight reel.

In 1989, in the midst of my second year with the Eagles, we traded kicker Luis Zendejas to the Dallas Cowboys. Several weeks later we played the Cowboys in Dallas, and the night before the game I talked with Luis and reminded him "to keep your head on a swivel."

He knew exactly what I was talking about. Days later, that game came to be known as the "Bounty Bowl" and our coach Buddy Ryan was accused of putting a bounty on his head.

Donald McPherson

But it was nothing like that at all. No one player was targeted. The incentive was the big play that changed the game. The hit had to be a clean and legal hit. Cheap shots, late or illegal hits were not only disallowed, they were met with boos. The money on the back end was merely ceremonial. For players making league minimum, it became a part of their service, like a tip to a waiter.

This was the NFL I grew up watching, and I was playing with guys I watched on TV as a child. It was the NFL that gave us "Monsters of the Midway," the "Purple People Eaters" and the "Steel Curtain." Bloody knuckles and vicious hits were the script by which the raw, orchestrated violence of the NFL was sold.

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When the revelations of the bounty that players of the New Orleans Saints players had for their opponents became public, my first thought was the rate of inflation: $10,000 seemed excessive -- but so too does a $100 million dollar contract from someone of my generation.

The big money makes the big hit seem more perverse. Still, the whole thing seems rather routine to me.

I must admit that when I first retired from football I did not view it as a violent game. While I had been aware of our society's appetite for violent entertainment, the violence of the game remained inconsequential to the goal. But taking a step to the sidelines, I could now see the carnage of the game and modified my view.

It's impossible to get past the reality of the way the game has grown. Big hits, big stages, big-time players and big salaries have characterized the growth of the game and its image. And, every player's contract is loaded with performance incentives that work to raise the level of competition. It seems to me that the coaches and players of the Saints were playing according to the model given.

Listening to the indignation by the public and most especially the sports media world as they condemn the behavior of the Saints players and coaches, it's hard not to hear some hypocrisy. To be sure, the league has presented the game over the years as a show of hard knocks, where athlete warriors wage their fight. And, young athletes, like I was in the 1970's, grow up striving for that moment they make the highlight reel.

The hits must be clean and the intent must never be to maim an opponent. However, as Tom Jackson of ESPN put it, the intent is to physically and psychologically "damage" a player with a hit. As someone who was often the one being hit, I understood that quite clearly.

Today we are more aware of head injuries and the violent nature of football. But this game has never been sold as the "two-hand touch" most boys played in their youth. It's common knowledge that football is not a "contact sport" but a "collision sport." And, while we must do all we can to prevent injuries, we must also recognize the insatiable appetite we have for the violence -- and the subsequent reward, of admiration and dollars, we bestow on NFL players.

We must also be honest about what we expect. This will not go away with admonishment from the media or sanctions from the league -- unless, of course, the media and the league stop promoting the violence and reward how the game is played when it presents it to the next generation.

The tradition will not stop on a dime any more than a player can stop as he charges towards an opposing player at full speed. Every football player has heard the phrase "reckless abandon." That's the way we were raised to play.

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