A lesson for soccer in football bounty scandal

By Paul Gardner

Bear with me, I'll be getting round to soccer shortly -- after some comments on football and boxing and hockey.

The sports moralizers are, once again, trembling with righteous indignation. The immediate cause of their wrath is the revelation that certain NFL clubs have been handing out financial rewards to their players for deliberately injuring opponents.

A squalid affair, for sure. There is even a menu of these bounties -- the money paid to players for crocking opponents. Thus, $1,500 for a “knockout” (an opponent injured badly enough to be taken out of the game) and $1,000 for a “cart-off” (an opponent carried off the field on a stretcher).

I have seen this referred to as a “blatant violation of football ethics.” But it’s difficult to work out just what those ethics might be. Are we supposed to believe that football players are sworn not to hurt their opponents?

The sport is based on body contact and constant collisions. So vicious is the contact that the players are forced to armor themselves like tanks. That is for their own safety, but of course it also ensures more vicious and more spectacular hits.

In the midst of that muscular maelstrom how is anyone going to sort out which contact is legal and which is dangerous? Which collision has just the right amount of force, and which is so violent as to likely cause serious injury? And if serious injury occurs, was it the result of malicious intent, or simply the product of “good, hard football” -- a phrase used by an NFLer in defense of the bounty scheme.

There is a strong whiff of hypocrisy involved in the condemnation of the bounty scheme in football. It can be detected more clearly by looking at the so-called sport of boxing. Here the “ethics” are clear. The aim is unarguably to do severe damage to the opponent, ideally to knock him senseless. Calculating just how much force that takes and making sure one does not overstep the mark, well we are supposed to believe that boxing has all of that under control.

Alas, severe crippling concussions, and deaths, occur regularly. And are regularly followed by tears and regrets (there is no reason to doubt that they are genuine) and calls for “reforms” to the “sport.” Forget it. The only reform that will prevent boxing from being a barbarous, murderous activity will be its banishment.

Football, one would like to think, is in a different category. But football has its deaths and its tragic paralyzed victims too -- more than boxing, given the greater involvement in the sport.

Pro boxers are paid to harm opponents -- their bounties come with each victory they rack up. That is clear enough, and most people find that acceptable. But the same attitude cannot be applied to real sports. Indeed, the whole uproar over the bounty payments is about that very point -- that football players should not be rewarded for inflicting injuries.

The shallowness of this argument is best illustrated by hockey. Hockey -- at least the NHL version of it -- is a sport that has chosen to allow fighting when it could quite easily ban it. But hockey fighting is a strange business, it occurs as short alien interludes while the sport itself pauses -- rather like an actor momentarily abandoning his role in a play to address an aside to the audience.

A recent article in the New York Times detailed the career of Derek Boogaard, a minimally talented player whose only obvious talents were that he was big and he could fight. So he was trained by his various clubs to be an enforcer. Forget the hockey. Boogaard was being paid -- eventually over $500,000 -- to do damage to opponents during those crude little bouts of bare-knuckle fisticuffs.

So what are football’s defensive players being paid for? For violence, certainly. Nothing as obvious as boxing, nor as cynical as hockey. But violence nonetheless. We’re back to the matter of “football ethics” -- which, presumably, forbid deliberately harming an opponent.

Belatedly, let me consider the victim’s point of view. Does it make much difference to him whether his career-ending injury came as the result of deliberate viciousness, or plain recklessness, or over-zealousness, or was totally accidental?

Doubtful, I’d say. From a legal angle, that first category opens up possibilities of a lawsuit. But the others raise questions about the nature of the sport itself, and whether it is possible to have a contact sport like football without the ever-present danger of serious physical injury.

Hockey makes no bones about including the fighting episodes as an acceptable part of the sport. But football cannot separate violence from regular play. Football players are paid to be violent ... but, the NFL would like to believe, only up to a point. Wherever that point may lie, it is evident that the bounty system tramples on it. In fact, makes it clear that there is no such point, that violence, once unleashed, is mighty difficult to rein in.

Boxers, clearly, hockey players to some extent, and football players as part of their sport, are paid to harm opponents. And the fans pay their money to see exactly that. So why should anyone be offended if the players are offered more money as an incentive to doing their job better?

And so to soccer. I have pointed out before that if football is classified as a contact sport, then we have to find another term for soccer. Football features contact as a basic part of the sport. Soccer is quite different. The original rule-makers went out of their way to drastically limit contact in the game -- and that approach still dominates the rules. A quick look at Rule 12 will underline just how many forms of contact the rules outlaw.

There is plenty of contact in soccer, incidental -- i.e. unintentional -- contact. But so important is it to the sport to keep the contact level low, that much of this unintentional contact is now illegal.

Bounties in soccer, therefore, should be greeted with genuine disgust -- not only are they morally offensive, they are clearly against the rules and the spirit of the sport. They cannot be viewed, or excused, as they can in football, as merely an incentive to play a contact sport a bit harder -- a view that considerably weakens any moral condemnation.

Anyway, the moral judgment I can safely leave to the moralizers. But as far as soccer is concerned, there is another lesson in all this, a sporting lesson if you like. It is directed, sharply, at the so-called enthusiasts of the sport who “like a physical game.”

These are people who pose a huge problem for the sport. One may question -- and I strongly do -- whether they appreciate the true nature of soccer at all. What they are advocating is what the original rule-makers -- those quaint Victorian gentlemen of the 1860s, with their elaborate facial whiskers and their pompous language -- did their best to take out of the game. They wanted a game in which the unique skills of soccer dominated. Those who wanted a physical game promptly broke away and gave birth to the sport of rugby.

The advocates of the physical game - of “good, hard football” should ponder the point at which football has arrived. Once physical play is accepted into a sport -- not as an incidental aspect, but as a fundamental -- there is no way of controlling it.

Football soon found that out. As early as 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt had to intervene with an appeal to reduce the mayhem. Rule changes followed and, of course, the steady accretion of protective clothing. Whether any of that has reduced the appetite for violence one may doubt: “Playing the game with an attitude opposing players absolutely feared. If that meant playing through the whistle, or going low in a tackle, I did it ...” That is not from 1905, but from just a few weeks back, by a player justifying the bounty system.

Soccer has already gone too far down that road. One can now hear, every weekend, television commentators excusing violence, even praising it. Most of these guys are ex-players. Every time they chuckle at a dangerously reckless tackle, every time they praise a player for being “hard-nosed” or any other of the various euphemisms used to avoid calling a thug a thug, every time they speak admiringly of a player who does “the dirty work” without explaining what it is they are talking about, they are betraying their ignorance of soccer’s soul, they are chipping away at the integrity of the sport.

Ultimately, “physical play” is just another euphemism for dirty play. Its proponents will of course deny that. But their argument is weak ... because they simply do not understand either the essence of the game, or its beauty.

11 comments about "A lesson for soccer in football bounty scandal".
  1. Kraig Richard, March 6, 2012 at 9:02 a.m.

    Book em Dano... many under evaluated poorly trained refs often, if they do watch soccer on TV, watch those games, then let that same form of thug ball happen on our pitches (especially scholastic) with no cards and no accumulation. Licensed coaches (if we had enough of them) could collectively demand better officiating. Coach Ref Captain’s meetings before each game to stop thug ball ahead of time might do good. Easy to find/use forms or contact info to make complaints. The elimination of the two ref system that lets out of shape officials walk around with their hands in their pockets, does not train young linesman how to police a game. Seeing our kid gets wrecked so many times every game is appalling. No one would kick someone standing in the street in front of a cop... how come they continually allow it in children’s games. Folks won't see US performance increase if we don't train the trainers, and put some evaluated officials that have the gumption to book em’.

  2. Futbol Genio, March 6, 2012 at 9:06 a.m.

    The EPL and British announcers foster a culture of side tackles, from behind tackles and elbows that allow young viewers to think that knocking out skillful players is part and parcel of the beautiful game. With MLS losing a bevy of ball carriers to career ending type injuries, what fun will the game be just watching the ball in the air and awaiting the next whistle? Refs have to protect the real stars of the sport to allow the MLS to prosper. And, we can do it....let's demand it.

  3. Mark Edge, March 6, 2012 at 9:22 a.m.

    I don't remember "television commentators excusing violence, even praising it." But maybe I missed something. Far be it from me to criticize an esteemed journalist for writing an accusing prose without actually substantiating it with a quote from said commentators. I'm sure he is in a position to describe the rule makers as "those quaint Victorian gentlemen of the 1860s, with their elaborate facial whiskers and their pompous language" I can only assume he was with them when they wrote it.

  4. Andres Yturralde, March 6, 2012 at 10:44 a.m.

    Informative piece, PG. I managed to pick up a couple of things. Unlike Super Man, of course, who can't pick up anything because he's flying so high.

  5. Gak Foodsource, March 6, 2012 at 11:17 a.m.

    I am often intrigued by the NFL veterans who refuse to speak out against the violence of the game, despite the lifelong pain and injuries they have suffered, because the NFL is a "violent" game and everyone knows what they are getting themselves into. It reminds me to a certain extent of the old EPL vets who used to play in the days of you having to be severely injured to consider laying on the ground after a foul. They, too, view the modern league the way the old NFL guys do. The good news in soccer is that the physical play is something that doesn't have to be a central tenant to the game. Physical in soccer is a style, but in football it is a fundamental component to the game, never to be erased or avoided.

  6. Gak Foodsource, March 6, 2012 at 11:20 a.m.

    And I must add this article would have had a very different tone if Mourinho and Pepe were successful in their 2 year quest to unseat Barcelona at all costs. Thank goodness they failed to do so using the physical tactics they employed throughout most of that time-period.

  7. Gak Foodsource, March 6, 2012 at 11:43 a.m.

    Super-I have. What does the league table have to do with Mourinho's tactics when playing Barcelona? Madrid have not dropped games in La Liga this season therefore they didn't try to injure/impede Barcelona's players in all but one game they have played between the two in the past 2 seasons? I'm not sure I follow.

  8. Jack Niner, March 6, 2012 at 4:30 p.m.

    Mr Gardner - Spot on. I'll never forget my sons U15 asst soccer coach who, during a game in which we were clearly outmatched and being beaten, had this blood curdling scream followed by 'Lay some wood on'em!' Needless to say I knew then and there this guy hadn't a clue about soccer, yet he had several 'licenses'. This simple-minded thinking has crept into college soccer big-time, to the point where physical size and strength are considered more important to ball skill and soccer IQ. Play is to often direct, possession nonexistant, focus is on defense, i.e., ugly soccer. Every player looks like a back or target.

    Now I'd like to know how to stop it. I suggest referee's at all levels have to be supported in handing out more yellow's and straight reds to stem the tide of thugish unskilled play. Eventually coaches would figure out that this simple minded approach to the game will not work. Nor should it. As you correctly mentioned, that's why rugby exists. Good refereeing MUST be supported for the integrity of the game.

  9. Millwall America, March 6, 2012 at 4:55 p.m.

    I would love to see historical evidence that the Victorian gentlemen who met at the Freemason's Tavern intended to take the physical element out of the game. The disagreement with Blackheath that led to rugby football was not about a "physical game" but about the practice of "hacking" -- deliberately kicking an opponent rather than the ball below the knee (accidentally kicking an opponent below the knee was fine, because everyone knew a gentleman would never intentionally do something prohibited by the rules and then claim it was an accident). More importantly, the proponents of the sport that became rugby thought all players should be allowed to carry the ball with their hands, not just the goalkeeper. Based on everything that I have read, Paul's notion that the Victorian gentlemen were trying to create a non-contact sport is, well, something he just made up. I'll also note that the Victorian gentlemen would sneer at Paul's beloved Barcelona, because every gentleman knew you only ever passed the ball to a teammate when you could no longer force your way forward on the dribble.

  10. Marc Warren, March 7, 2012 at 11:30 a.m.

    As long as they believe that there is no consequnces for their actions dangerous play will remain. I think that any foul that results in a player to be out of commission due to injury, should result in suspension without pay, to the offending player equal in time to the injured player.
    As long as teams feel like they can level the game by sending in the thugs, we are condemned to the the continuation of this practice. It does the sport no good. This should be the "beautiful game." And frankly anything we can do to encourage more scoring will only help the popularity of the sport.
    Paul is also correct in criticizing the Blithering British Blowhard Broadcasters we are stuck with on either ESPN or Fox Soccer. Do the Broadcast Exec.'s think that only a British voice has the gravitas to comment on Soccer to an American audience . It is somewhat condescending attitude if you ask me, I am not about protectionism but more about a modern US voice.

  11. Jack Niner, March 7, 2012 at 6:23 p.m.

    @MarxW - Agree totally on the broadcasters. For a long time when I channeled surfed, I would immediately skip to the next channel if I heard an English accent - I found it irritating. I had to force myself to overcome the irritations of an English accent in order to watch more soccer on cable, although I am no real fan of English soccer.

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