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‘We Want His Head Sideways’: Metaphor vs. Malice on NFL Sidelines

April 6, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
The NFL's so-called bounty scandal deepened Thursday when audio surfaced of a former New Orleans Saints coach encouraging players to injure specific opponents during a playoff game. Jeffrey Brown discusses the latest revelations and the fallout with The Washington Post's Mike Wise and Northeastern University's Dan Lebowitz.

JEFFREY BROWN: Next, violent talk and a violent, but hugely popular sport.

GREGG WILLIAMS, National Football League Coach: There may be better athletes, but not defensive football players that have to go into war tomorrow.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams last January firing up players to face the San Francisco 49ers in a playoff game the next day.

Documentary filmmaker Sean Pamphilon recorded Williams demanding the get-tough approach that might be heard in many locker rooms. But Williams has now admitted he oversaw cash bounties for players who knocked opponents out of games. And in parts of the tape, he clearly targets key San Francisco players, including number 10, Kyle Williams, who’d already had four concussions.

GREGG WILLIAMS: We need to find out in the first two series of the game the little wide receiver number 10 about his concussion. We need to (EXPLETIVE DELETED) put a lick on him right now.

JEFFREY BROWN: San Francisco’s wide receiver Michael Crabtree was a target as well. He’d been nursing a damaged ligament, an ACL, in his knee.

GREGG WILLIAMS: We need to decide whether Crabtree wants to be a (EXPLETIVE DELETED) prima donna or he wants to be a tough guy. We need to find that out, and he becomes human when you (EXPLETIVE DELETED) take out that outside ACL.

JEFFREY BROWN: Williams also zeroed in on 49er tailback Frank Gore.

GREGG WILLIAMS: We have got to do everything in the world to make sure we kill Frank Gore’s head. We want him running sideways. We want his head sideways.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Saints ultimately lost the game, and Williams himself left New Orleans. Then, the bounty scandal erupted into full view, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended him from the league indefinitely.

Saints head coach Sean Payton was banned for the coming season. The Williams audio appeared online, hours before Payton’s appeal hearing yesterday. Filmmaker Pamphilon says he released it as a warning amid growing concern about head injuries in football at all levels.

More now on the tape and larger questions it raises from Dan Lebowitz, executive director of the Center on Sports in Society at Northeastern University, and Mike Wise, sports columnist for The Washington Post. He also hosts a sports radio talk show.

Dan Lebowitz, I will start with you.

What strikes you most about that tape?

DAN LEBOWITZ, executive director, Center on Sports in Society, Northeastern University: What strikes me most about it is that it goes against everything the Roger Goodell sort of tenure at the NFL.

Goodell has come in, looked at concussion issues, been responsive to the concussion issues, has tried to establish a code of conduct for that league as if they were in many respects what they are, a major brand like IBM. He’s leveled fines for excessive hits. He’s told people that he was going to establish this code of conduct. And he’s held strong to it.

So I think, in many respects, it’s a rogue and reprehensible act by certain people, in contrast to what the overall leadership of the league, whether it’s from Goodell or owners like Kraft and the Rooneys — there is a strong leadership in the NFL, and it’s a great brand. And I think that that brand has worked hard to make sure that people respect it and see that that brand is carrying a role of responsibility.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, well, Mike Wise, you have been in a lot of locker rooms at the same time. . .

MIKE WISE, The Washington Post: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: … and must have heard these kinds of — pumping up is what coaches do, especially in a violent sport like football.

MIKE WISE: Yes, I think there’s a segment of society today saying, Jeff, this is how the sausage is made, and why should we be surprised?

But I think it’s — I think it’s important to make a clear distinction between, metaphorically speaking, I’m — you need to go knock that guy’s head off, which we have all heard in locker rooms, and you’ve got to go test somebody’s ACL. You have to hit him in the head.

Apparently, from the audio, the visual involved pointing at a chin, saying, you need to get Alex Smith under the chin. These are — these are clear malicious intent to injure — to — injures. And if you get to that point, I think you step over some lines, some boundaries that all of a sudden are crossed.

JEFFREY BROWN: But is the line — I will stay with you, Mike. Is the line clear? I mean, that’s the question, right?

MIKE WISE: Well, and that’s a good question, because having talked to Richard — Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, one the top neurologists in the country who’s on the NFL’s concussion committee, he says that there is a culture change going on.

The problem is, it’s not going on, on the sideline yet. It’s in the owners’ offices. It’s in Roger Goodell’s office. He can’t have his offensive stars being hurt because it hurts his bottom line. But if it’s not happening on the sidelines, it doesn’t matter. And it has to happen on the sidelines.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Dan Lebowitz, you were talking about seeing it in the commissioner’s office.

What about the sideline? What about criticism even of the commissioner’s office that they — yes, they understand it now, but they came late to this concussion problem, and, you know, are responding more out of fear at this point than out of real health concern?

DAN LEBOWITZ: Well, I think that, you know, people generally sometimes have to respond in a reactive fashion, given sort of the way society moves and issues that are raised as society moves.

I think, to Goodell’s credit, you can look at it as reactive. But I think that his policies in that reaction have been very proactive. And I think that he has set a clear tenor for the league during his tenure. And I think that it’s going to filter down either through fine or through suspensions, as he’s been levying.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mike Wise, a lot of money is on the line either way, right? I mean, this is an incredibly profitable sport.


And I don’t want to demean Roger Goodell and say he doesn’t care about the safety of players. I do think he does. I also think this also happens to be at a time when there are 55 concussion-related lawsuits now filed against the NFL, class-action suits that represent over 1,000 players, Jeff.

That’s millions and millions of dollars. He cannot have his defensive coordinators asking his players to take out other players in the game. It’s not healthy for his game’s future economically or morally. The fans will tune off if this keeps happening.

JEFFREY BROWN: What are you hearing from other players, first, you know, from a week ago and now after this tape?

MIKE WISE: It’s really shocking. There’s such a wide variance.

Some — like there’s — Chris Kluwe, the punter from Minnesota, is so bothered by this idea that people are outing snitches and the idea that somehow the people who told on them are not looked at as good samaritans, but people who broke football’s code. He’s angry about those people.

There are other people saying. . .

JEFFREY BROWN: Not about — not about what happened, but about the way it got out.

MIKE WISE: Yeah, the way it got out. That’s the sad part.

There are people more concerned in the NFL, players, that are more concerned with the fact who told than who actually is trying to maliciously injure me. That, to me, is a warped culture.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Dan Lebowitz, speaking of larger culture here, what of fans? How do fans respond to this? Do you see it having any repercussions?

DAN LEBOWITZ: Well, I think that the spotlight of sport creates such a great platform for discussion about right and wrong, about ethics and a number of other things.

So, in many respects, the concussion issue, the league’s response in terms of leveling fines for hits hopefully will engage in larger national discussion where people will start thinking about ethics in general. Like, what is ethical and why aren’t we more ethical?

And, so, you know, I mean, these questions could be asked in the political realm. It could be asked in the financial realm. It could be asked elsewhere. But I think it’s that great spotlight of sport that allows for a discussion along a much wider audience.

JEFFREY BROWN: You were nodding your head.


JEFFREY BROWN: You think there is some hope there?

MIKE WISE: Yes, I think there is — and not to be utopian about it, but I think at some point, if people do want their children to play football, they allow them to play football, you want to know that it’s not about hurting the other guy, that it’s about something other than that, and that there is values maintained and that there are things that happen that go — that transcend just knocking another guy out.

And if it’s — we understand that the violence is oxygen to football in some ways that we will never get away from.

JEFFREY BROWN: And to the fans.

MIKE WISE: And to the fans. You’re not going to have a league without big hits.

But I think we need to get to a point — and I don’t know if Dan agrees with this — that — where we celebrate the hard hitters, but we condemn the headhunters. And I know that those lines are very iffy, and it’s not clear when you obliterate them. But Gregg Williams did. And I think he should be condemned.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, brief last word, Dan Lebowitz?

DAN LEBOWITZ: I just think that, you know, in general, Mike’s right on point there.

A line was crossed, and I think that Gregg Williams should be condemned. And I think that that condemnation will reverberate throughout society in ways that will be positive.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dan Lebowitz, Mike Wise, thank you both very much.

MIKE WISE: Thanks, Jeff.

DAN LEBOWITZ: Thank you.