NFL Bounties and the Law

With all the news reports about players and coaches on the New Orleans Saints having a system of side payments for knocking opposing players out of the game, I was interested to get the take in Give the Ref a Gavel written by Eldon L. Ham, a lawyer and adjunct professor at the Chicago-Kent School of Law.

Mr. Ham refers to the Saints bounty program as a “ruthless criminal conspiracy” which the NFL should punish via fines and suspensions. In addition, Mr. Ham calls upon legislatures to take action.

Rather than wait for our courts to gradually wake up, state legislatures should accelerate the process by adopting laws defining and criminalizing something we can call “flagrant sports battery.” This could protect not just N.F.L. players, but athletes in high school and college. These laws would not apply to customary hard hits, personal fouls or the normally accepted aggressive play that is part of the game. But they would proscribe aberrant conduct like hit lists and bounties, and penalize other malicious actions.

It is easy to agree, I suspect, that keeping hit lists and paying bounties for putting players out of the game through actions in violation of the rules of the game is outside the bounds of sportsmanship and should be condemned. I suspect also that most people knowledgeable about a professional sporting contest, and surely the participants in that contest, know who the key players on the opposing team are and hardly need a list to be kept to remind them. A law addressing such issues seems like a nice idea, but what would it actually accomplish?

But Mr. Ham also calls for the law to “penalize other malicious actions”. Wow. I hope if any such law ever gets discussed it is far more specific about what constitutes a malicious action under the law than Mr. Ham has been in this op-ed piece. Fans of the NFL are likely to agree that rules regarding what are and what are not legal hits within the rules of the game seem to be applied in ways that are largely random, though possibly with some deference to protecting marquee players, especially quarterbacks. I think these “other malicious actions” will be as hard to define as pornography, we can’t quite say what they are, but we know them when we see them.

The actions described in Mr. Ham’s article are all troubling. Courts should perhaps be more willing to tackle some of these cases, and leagues, professional and recreational alike, should be more active in policing their members to keep these things from happening. But one wonders if these sorts of occurrences are so common place as to warrant passage of laws that would surely be costly to enforce and difficult to prosecute.

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Author: Dennis Coates

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5 thoughts on “NFL Bounties and the Law”

  1. Nice post Dennis.

    I also wonder about the equilibrium here. Since value falls for all owners and coaches and players under “bounty” play, it seems that the equilibrium should be (regardless of bounty) “completely end the career of anybody who disables our stars”.

    I know the prisoners’ dilemma types will chime in but that setting doesn’t hold here; repeated play after all. And all of us who play gym rat self-monitored basketball know what happens to big bad asses- they either don’t get chosen to play, or they end up coming down on somebody’s foot “accidentally” and disabled.

    Instead, this whole “bounty” flap sounds like a simple motivation technique. Biggest team badass gets a steak dinner. The data in the press sem to back this up. Unfortunately, it also makes for a nice overblown newspaper seller.

  2. We don’t know that any sort of bounty system had any effect on actual play. I suspect that many more teams do this in the NFL in some way. Some players would not be in the league if it were not for their aggressive play. If all teams have the bounty system, then an equilibrium should be found that yields an optimal “bounty”, even more so with revenue sharing.

    Mel Blount, Jack Lambert, Jack Tatum, George Atkinson, Ronnie Lott….even the treasured Dick Butkus, might not have been in the league if not for their styles of play…..remember Lynn Swann?

    This sounds like something a reporter learned in a passing comment from a player that was not to be taken seriously.

  3. It’s professional football! It’s already a sacrosanct field where what would ordinarily be common criminal actions remain protected and rewarded. Let the legislature work out funding roads, schools and hospitals and the bullies regulate their own games. Besides wouldn’t bounties fall under thealready exisiting betting on the outcome of the game laws?

  4. Well the courts have done so well with the other problems in the world so lets get lawyers involved in what happens on the field of play. Lets make someone commissioner that has had success on a football field and a courtroom. O.J. Simpson would be the perfect pick to run the NFL.

    Just as soon as he gets out of jail.

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