NFL Bounties and the Criminal Justice System:<br />
Not So Different?

Roger Goodell has spoken, which is never good for an NFL player.  Because of their participation in “bountygate,” the NFL commissioner suspended Jonathan Vilma (entire season), Anthony Hargrove (8 games), Will Smith (4 games) Scott Fujita (3 games). And what was their infraction?  They participated in a program, along with their coaches, that provided big dollars for vicious hits on the playing field, especially those leading “‘knockout’ or ‘cart-off’ hits.” 

While others questioned the NFL’s commitment to safety, calling the punishments excessive, Roger Goodell justified suspensions as part of league’s commitment to root out unnecessary violence and protect its players:  “It is the obligation of everyone, including the players on the field, to ensure that rules designed to promote player safety, fair play, and the integrity of the game are adhered to and effectively and consistently enforced. Respect for the men that play the game starts with the way players conduct themselves with each other on the field.” Linking the punishment to its effort to promote “safety, fair play and integrity,” Goodell seems to have concluded that encouraging on-the-field violence with financial incentives is counter to not just the NFL but the morals and values of society. 

While drawing a wide range of opinions as to whether the “punishment fit the crime,” there seems to be agreement about the evils of a bounty system.  According to Bill Plaschke,  “The integrity of this country's most popular sports league has been battered, and its commitment to safety bloodied, with the NFL's report...that the New Orleans Saints spent three years operating a management-approved bounty pool that paid big money for inflicting injury.”

Similarly Jeff Schultz positioned “bountygate” in the context of morals and values “We’ve addressed this before: Anybody who trivializes the bounty program with comments like, ‘Everybody does it’ (not true) or the NFL loves violence (true, but they don’t love concussions and torn ligaments) is missing the point. There’s a difference between rewarding an athlete for an unscripted play and a premeditated assault. Payments for ‘cart-offs’ aren’t acceptable. We’re taking about people’s livelihoods. And lives.” 

For them, Roger Goodell needed to send a message, one made clear that the league would not tolerate any efforts to reward and encourage on-the-field violence.

These suspensions have made clear that "bounties" have no place within football. But as the NFL’s crackdown on paid smackdowns takes hold, what about the bounty system that exists throughout our culture?  If encouraging violence with financial incentives, if promises of cash and fame are unacceptable within football, can we say the same about the criminal justice system?  If risking people’s lives and potentially destroying their careers violates the values of sport, can we not agree that it is also antithetical to justice and democracy? 

If encouraging violence with financial incentives, if promises of cash and fame are unacceptable within football, can we say the same about the criminal justice system?

What is bad for football is surely bad for a system committed to justice and equal protection under the law. And yet ours is a criminal justice system that rewards officers for arrests and tickets, that provides financial incentives for the "war on drugs", that encourages racial profiling and “stop and frisk” programs. 

Our government's efforts to fight drug sales and distribution is also a bounty system of sorts. In cities throughout the United States, police forces have relied on drug tasks forces to generate budgetary support from the federal government.  Federal grants and other financial rewards come with successful arrests and prosecutions.  “Federal funding flows to those agencies that increase dramatically the volume of drug arrests, not the agencies most successful in bringing down the bosses.  What gets rewarded in this war is sheer numbers of drug arrests,” writes Michelle Alexander.  “To make matters worse, federal drug forfeiture laws allow state and local law enforcement agencies to keep for their own use 80% of the cash, cars, and homes seized from drug suspects, thus granting law enforcement a direct monetary interest in the profitability of the drug market.” 

In other words, more arrests, more dollars; more stops, more searches, more money for police and more problems for people of color, the poor and addicts.

Beyond justifying support for drug tasks forces and purchasing more equipment to terrorize communities of color, arrests also lead to seizure of property, lining the pockets of America’s police forces.  Does this not corrupt the integrity and fairness of this system?  Does the carrot of money, in the form of grants, or financially lucrative property, not corrupt a system, one that disproportionately targets communities of color and the poor?  

What is bad for the NFL and its integrity is certainly bad for America, its criminal (in)justice system, and its integrity. Perhaps those of us outside the sports world can be inspired to fight the 'bountygate' that lives so close to home.