“These things have been going on in the NFL for decades,” said Dick Butkus on ESPN Thursday night. “The only thing that has changed are the rewards. It used to be a steak dinner...with the salaries that they are making today though it must have eventually became cash.”
“We saw nothing wrong with that whatsoever at the time,” he continued.
However, Butkus played during an era when doctors hadn’t connected playing football to brain injuries or nervous disfunctions. That was before Mike Webster, the Hall of Fame Steeler center, died young, homeless, schizophrenic and spending nights under a bridge. It was before Al Toon had a concussion so bad that he had to spend years in a dark room with sunglasses on because just the slightest amount of light would give him an intense migraine. And it was before players became addicted to painkillers and other drugs just to make it through each day.
People always say that athletes get paid too much money these days. While I believe that may be true in other sports, I’ve always thought that football may be the one sport where that may not be the case. How can you put a price tag on knees with no cartilage, brain injuries that last for years..possibly a lifetime and addictions to painkillers that nearly drain the money the players made during their careers.
Remember (those who are old enough) watching Hall of Famer Earl Campbell run over defenders like he was a freight train? When’s the last time you’ve seen Earl Campbell. He walks with a cane these days like a 90-year-old man. You gonna tell him he was overpaid during his career?
When Earl retired after New Orleans Saints coach Bum Phillips foolishly traded for him, making his famous quote “Earl will run hard for me,” I recall watching a defensive player (can’t recall his name) say that his coaches told them that every time Campbell touched the ball try to put at least 15 hits on his legs. Let’s do the math here. 20+ carries a game. 15+ hits per carry. That’s 300+ hits a game his legs took during each game throughout his outstanding career. While he did play like Superman for a few years, he was just as mortal as you or me and all the training in the world couldn’t have prevented where he is today - a 57-year-old man that I could now beat in a foot race.
I was watching HBO’s Inside Sports show a while back and they did a special on Randy Grimes, a former Tampa Bay Buccaneer offensive linemen who was so addicted to painkillers that he said at one point he was taking up to 40 Vicodins a day. A group of doctor’s - who work pro-bono - have started a rehabilitation clinic for ex-NFL players and it showed him going through the entire process. The first step was to get off the painkillers. As he was getting on the plane to go down to Florida, where the clinic was located, he looked at the camera and said “I guess I won’t be needing these anymore” as he pulled his rather large prescription bottle out of his pocket. He then poured what had to be about 30 pills into his hand and took them all at once.
My jaw hit the floor.
So yeah, the Saints having a bounty program which rewarded players with cash who injured opponents and got an extra bit if that player was carted off was wrong. Very wrong.
However, I’ve been trying to think of one star player that was carted off the field while playing against the Saints during the past three years and I can’t think of anyone. Definitely not during the Saints playoff run in 2010, so I like to think that these millionaires that are supposed to be animals on the field and perfect gentlemen while off it really didn’t care about an extra $1,500 here or there. That is with the exception of Jonathan Vilma who admitted that he put up $10,000 to the man who took Brett Favre out of the NFC Championship game. Had Brett not been a warrior and remained in the game despite a badly sprained ankle, someone would have collected that money.
Don’t kid yourself. I am heartbroken. The Saints and LSU have been my two favorite teams since I was a small child. I do find the punishment to be way too harsh but it got the attention of the league which was probably Godell’s intention in the first place. Suspending Sean Payton for an entire season (no other head coach had ever been suspended for even one game before) was a bit much. Especially considering that Gregg “Let’s blitz every play” Williams was the man who started the bounty program. Just as he was said to have done in his two previous stops in Washington and Buffalo. But Payton was certainly aware of it and deserved to be punished. However, removing a coach from his team for an entire season is brutally harsh. Especially considering that his main focus was on the offense. He left the defense under the control of Williams.
Now it seems that everybody wants to know who the person who ratted out the Saints was. The main name that keeps coming up is ex-Saint Jeremy Shockey who played for the Carolina Panthers last year and faced the Saints defense twice. Was there a bounty on Shockey? Who knows? But I’ll bet the house that while his fragile body was being pounded by the Saints last year he may have become vindictive and wanted some retribution. However, Shockey’s image in league circles isn’t exactly like that of Tom Brady. In short, he has been called a ‘bad teammate’ since he arrived in the league as a New York Giant over the course of the last decade. A person who brings what happens in the locker room to the public falls neatly into this category.
Speaking of bad images, the Saints are going to have to work extra hard over the next few seasons to repair theirs. And the best way to start is by signing Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees, who sounds like a Boy Scout during interviews, to the largest contract in NFL history.
Howell Dennis is a native of Lafayette, La. He attended the University of Texas at Arlington where he graduated in journalism and public relations.