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Originally published March 10, 2012 at 6:09 PM | Page modified March 10, 2012 at 6:36 PM

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NFL bounty program crosses line, but it's an extreme example in an often very violent sport

It's not like hard hits are a completely different mindset in often gray area of NFL violence.

Seattle Times NFL reporter

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Condemning Gregg Williams is easy.

He's the former New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator who organized a practice of paying his players four-figure bonuses for hits that knocked an opponent out of the game. Yeah, he's that guy. The one commissioner Roger Goodell might choose to flog before all this is done.

Being rewarded for inflicting injury is unseemly, it violates the league's collective-bargaining agreement as well as the most basic tents of sportsmanship. No one with half a conscience and a shoe size worth of IQ is going to condone it.

Just don't get so caught up in vilifying those actions that you lose sight of the gray area that exists right on the other side of the line that Williams clearly crossed. Because sometimes that gray area gets pretty dark — as it did after the NFC Championship Game when the Giants' Jacquian Williams talked about 49ers returner Kyle Williams, who fumbled two kicks in the game and had a history of head injuries.

"We knew he had four concussions," Jacquian Williams said after the game. "So that was our biggest thing, was to take him outta the game."

Think about that statement for a second, says Hugh Millen, a former Husky and NFL quarterback for nine seasons.

"How do you think those guys knew that?" Millen said.

The question isn't whether a coach-sanctioned bounty program is bad. Pretty much everyone can agree that it is. The more difficult — and in many ways more important — concern is how much worse it is than other things that a football fan considers simply part of the game.

"If our outrage for Gregg Williams is nine on a 10 scale, shouldn't that be an eight?" Millen said of the Giants' scouting report. "It doesn't even get mentioned."

The Saints' bounty program isn't some island in the ocean of professional football so much as an extreme example of an underlying mentality that is hard-wired into the game.

Big hits are a celebrated part of football. They draw cheers from fans and earn hit-of-the-week rewards from coaches at every level of tackle football. There is nothing necessarily mean-spirited or vicious about this. It's just the reality of what is a violent sport.

As former NFL linebacker Dave Wyman explained, you never want to really injure an opponent, but any defender worth his salt is trying to put enough pepper on a hit so it hurts.

"Maybe he gets so foggy that he wants to leave the game," Wyman said. "You're trying to take the guy's heart away.

"You want to hit him so hard that he doesn't want to get hit any more."

That mindset is woven into the fabric of this game. That doesn't mean the hits are going to be dirty, doesn't mean the hits will be cheap, but if the mere goal of knocking the quarterback out of the game somehow sullies the sport, then the sport needs a name change. It won't be football anymore.

Millen provided an even more telling example. He played quarterback in the NFL with four teams over the span of nine seasons. In Atlanta, he remembers coach Jerry Glanville pointing out the opposing team suited up only two quarterbacks.

"You could just see, it was like an affront to him," Millen said. "What's the intimation there? The intimation there is we need to knock those quarterbacks out."

Now, that's not the same thing as offering cash for knocking that player out, but how much better is it? We're talking a difference of degrees here, not a separate mindset.

Williams' program took it too far. Everyone can agree on that. It was extreme, and it went against the rules and it opened the possibility that a player would benefit by going outside the rules to injure an opponent.

But it would be naïve to pretend it was some isolated evil that tarred an otherwise blissful game. It was an extreme manifestation of the underlying mentality that both seeks out and celebrates bone-jarring hits, which by the very nature of their description, can cause injuries.

Danny O'Neil: 206-464-2364 or doneil@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @dannyoneil


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