Gregg Williams's bounty program probably doesn't come as news to most NFL players and coaches. But that doesn't mean the St. Louis Rams shouldn't react to it.
It takes a lot for something to be the St. Louis Rams' worst break ever, but this might be it: It's become increasingly clear, over the last few days, that they managed to hire their new defensive coordinator right as he became the central figure in the bounty scandal, in which it's become clear that, as a coach with the New Orleans Saints (and likely the Buffalo Bills), Williams paid players to score "cart offs" or "knockouts" on other players.
The Rams' ability to catch a break, so far as I can tell, withered away the moment Kurt Warner broke his hand in 2000. Since then their stadium has been rendered prematurely "obsolete" by a series of tax-funded boondoggles out of town, their offensive genius has turned into a guy who just really likes J.T. O'Sullivan a lot, their franchise quarterback has gotten saddled with two failed offensive schemes in as many years, they drafted Jason Smith, and, finally, their third big coaching change has unwittingly gotten them implicated in the biggest NFL scandal in years.
This one's different, though. This time the Rams have a chance to participate in something that's heartening, instead of depressing, in the course of putting themselves dangerously close to another two- or three-win season. They can fire Gregg Williams without waiting for news of his league-mandated fate. No matter how common this kind of thing has been—and I'm willing to go out on a limb and say it was very common—the Rams have been handed a chance to take a hard line against it.
Here's the cynical rationale: The seemingly newfound worries about concussions are only the start of the casual fan's reticence toward accepting the idea that by being a fan of the NFL he's paying people to do unnatural things and grow to unnatural and sometimes dangerous sizes. A casual fan might be okay with an offensive lineman getting bigger than is healthy and having to retire when he's 27 if it's happening off-screen and it seems like it's nobody's fault, but as clearer images of the nasty-brutish-short nature of the NFL appear they're going to connect all these less-captivating pictures into something that the NFL will have to take action against.
If they don't take action against it—well, it's an exaggeration to say that they'll suffer the same fall from middle-class-respectabilty that boxing did, but I do think there's something to the analogy. After years of Steve Spagnuolo's more nebulous "four pillars" philosophy for playing football the right way, the Rams can come out and say that they're going to play clean, and that their version of clean doesn't involve this thing that a lot of people are outraged about.
Here's my actual rationale: It's good that the NFL will have to take action against it. I'm not naive enough to believe that Gregg Williams was the first defensive coordinator to imagine players might be compelled to compete harder in a system where they can earn team-wide plaudits by doing something really gratifying like flattening somebody, but I don't think that matters—now that it's out there, it's good that we can deal with it—and the NFL will have to. Williams shouldn't be blackballed—we've forgiven athletes and coaches for doing worse—but not having an NFL job for a few weeks until his suspension runs out seems insufficient, given how consistently he appears to have promoted environments like the ones that are suddenly in the news.
I've wondered a lot about my own position on this, given my fundamental indifference to the similar arguments set out by anti-steroids writers in both baseball and football, and I won't deny a certain bias operating in both directions: Steroids promote home runs, which I like, and incentivizing smaller football players and fewer incapacitating hits promotes complex, speedy, pass-heavy offenses, which I also like.
But I really do think it's an ultimately reductive comparison—one that says more about our undue hysteria over steroids than the current controversy over these programs. Steroids in sports, before they were clearly banned, forced us to consider whether it was cheating to do something that's (mostly) illegal outside the sport to get an edge. The bounty system stretches past the internal morality of football—it forces us to consider whether it's immoral to pay somebody a bonus for putting somebody else on a cart. It forces us to consider our own priorities as football fans—what we're incentivizing, and whether it's worth it.
I think it's immoral, and I don't think it's been worth it. Now that we've all been implicated, let's start handing out our punishments.