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Matt Bowen wrote in the Chicago Tri­bune on Fri­day that there was a sim­i­lar pro­gram in Wash­ing­ton when Wil­liams coached here. Play­ers, Bowen said, were re­warded for “big hits, clean hits by the rule book.” But clearly, he has some mis­giv­ings about the prac­tice — and about the league’s re­morse­less cul­ture of do­ing “what has to be done.”

“No doubt, it can be down­right dis­gust­ing liv­ing by a win-at-all-costs men­tal­ity,” he went on. “I’m not say­ing it’s right. Or eth­i­cal.”

The irony is that, in many re­spects, the game prob­a­bly is cleaner to­day than it’s ever been. Un­til the ’50s, let’s not for­get, you could punch an op­po­nent in the face any time you felt like it. There was no mask to get in the way. In­deed, there was a law­less­ness to pro foot­ball in those days, an al­most pro­fes­sional wrestling as­pect to it, that’s hard to imag­ine now. Quar­ter­backs, in par­tic­u­lar, rou­tinely were roughed up. The league hadn’t put them on the en­dan­gered-species list yet.

But in the decades since, the NFL has be­come in­creas­ingly in­tol­er­ant of rough­house tac­tics. It isn’t un­usual these days for a player to be docked a game check for an over-the-line hit that wasn’t even pe­nal­ized. As Jimmy John­son put it when he was coach­ing in Dallas, “I don’t think any­body to­day can come any­where close to some­one who played 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago. Nowa­days, if you look wrong at a guy, you’re go­ing to get a $5,000 fine. If [Conrad] Dobler were play­ing to­day, his en­tire pay­check would go to the league, and then he’d owe them money.”

Still, Wil­liams and the Saints went way too far. They em­bar­rassed the league. They em­bar­rassed them­selves. They peeled back the lay­ers of pro foot­ball and ex­posed its psy­cho­pathic side, its cul­ture of ex­cess. For that, some­one must pay, and pay heav­ily. But there also must be a com­plete ac­count­ing. Let’s get it all out on the ta­ble. How wide­spread are boun­ties? Uni­ver­sal? Some­thing less than that? Or does the NFL just not want to know?

Wil­liams will be de­mo­nized for this, and likely will re­ceive a hefty fine and sus­pen­sion, but the play­ers are just as cul­pa­ble. And frankly, it takes some of the steam out of their con­cus­sion suits — which claim the league hasn’t been do­ing enough to pro­tect the play­ers — when the play­ers are tar­get­ing one an­other in games for the sheer mur­der­ous fun of it.

I’m re­minded of a fine bit of mumbo-jumbo once ut­tered by line­backer James Harrison, the Pitts­burgh Steel­ers’ bully. “I don’t want to in­jure any­body,” he said. “There’s a big dif­fer­ence be­tween be­ing hurt and be­ing in­jured. You get hurt, you come back the next series or the next game. I try to hurt peo­ple.”

I’m also re­minded of the night Joe Theis­mann’s leg was bro­ken by the New York Giants. When it be­came clear what had hap­pened, Lawrence Tay­lor, one of the gang who tack­led him, put his hands on his hel­met in de­spair. “This is not what I play foot­ball for,” he seemed to be say­ing. Would a Saint have done the same thing, or would he have been too busy try­ing to fig­ure out what a bro­ken leg was worth?

You hear it all the time: Foot­ball play­ers are big­ger, stronger and faster than ever. And that means, of course, that col­li­sions are more de­struc­tive, too. It’s a mir­a­cle nobody has ever died on an NFL field from a vi­cious hit. Won­der if the Bounty Boys ever think about that when they’re di­vid­ing up the loot and set­ting the prices on the next op­po­nent.

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