Is there a line, of sorts, connecting the New Orleans Saints “bounty” scandal to the eighth-grade little league football playoff game that got out of hand Saturday in Fillmore, Utah?
At first blush, the answer has to be “no.” In the NFL’s bounty scandal, players were promised cash bonuses for injuring certain players on opposing teams. There is absolutely no evidence that anything of the sort was at play in Fillmore as South Sevier faced Juab.
But the way things got out of hand, reportedly after Juab executed on onside kick despite leading the game, 30-6, may be evidence of a culture of retaliation that comes from a tone set at the highest levels of the game. Even if coaches were not involved, young players certainly know what happens in the pro ranks.
The Juab quarterback was hit hard enough that he had to leave the game. His replacement was hit so hard on the very next play that he, too, had to leave. It was a helmet-to-helmet hit that garnered a 15-yard penalty, although the head official said he didn’t believe it was deliberate.
After a subsequent meeting between officials and coaches, the original quarterback re-entered the game and then was “laid flat” by a hit. Officials then called the game.
Before completely dismissing a connection between the bounty scandal and youth football, consider this story out of California, where a Pop Warner league president and a coach have been suspended amid allegations players were offered up to $50 for knocking opponents out of a game.
Football always has gone hand-in-hand with violence, and the line between acceptable and unacceptable always has been pretty thin. Generally, though, in the old days the problems in youth football had to do with fist fights among fans or players. There was some violence surrounding college football and racial integration.
But for an interesting perspective on the bounty scandal, the Chicago Tribune published a piece in 1957 titled, “Is pro football dirty?” It was written by Jerry Groom, a former lineman for the Chicago Cardinals (now the Arizona Cardinals).
Groom describes the tactics he would use to beat an opponent, including hitting him in the head with a cast he had on his arm.
But he adds, “During my professional career, I never went at a rival with malicious intent. I tried to jolt some of the opposing quarterbacks, certainly; I tried to shake up many an opposing quarterback so that the next time he saw me barreling in at him he would be in a hurry to get rid of that football. But I never once was guilty of any act that the jolted quarterback would construe as dirty!”
NFL players, he insisted, would police themselves. “We knew how to take care of any fellow who experimented with dirty play.”
That was in 1957, and I question whether he was giving an accurate description of the game. But, in any event, the culture of the day was that fair play and sportsmanship were the most important virtues. I’m not sure the same culture prevails today, and even the youngest players understand this.