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Make penalties intolerable

By Walt Braun

Fans of professional football who watch in person or on television as a player gets strapped onto a gurney and taken away in an ambulance now have reason to wonder how much the hit that injured the player was worth.

They do so because of the recent revelation that Gregg Williams, the defensive coordinator of the New Orleans Saints, ran a system that rewarded players who injured opposing players badly enough that they had to leave the field. There was the “cart-off,” worth $1,000 (more in the playoffs) in which a player had to be carried off the field, and the “knockout,” worth $1,500 or more, for knocking a player out of the game.

That such a bounty system has existed on other teams doesn’t lessen the significance of the revelations involving the Saints. Though the team’s coach, Sean Payton, and general manager, Michael Loomis, have apologized, both erred badly in allowing the bounty system to operate.

The National Football League cannot allow that, and indications are that it will not. The league already is fending off lawsuits from former players who suffer from various physical problems because, they say, the NFL knew more about the effect of the game’s violence than it shared with them and did too little to protect them in their playing days .

To its credit, the NFL under Commissioner Roger Goodell’s leadership has become more involved in player safety. It’s improving awareness and equipment and increasing fines and other penalties for players who try to hurt other players.

Coaches at every level will acknowledge that football isn’t just a contact sport. It’s a collision sport, with collisions often violent enough to cause unintended injuries. If the league plans to continue operating a sport in which big, strong, fast men block, pursue and tackle one another, there is only so much that can be done to eliminate those injuries.

There is plenty, however, that the league can do to prevent or even eliminate intentional injuries.

Among attractive options are banning coaches like Mr. Williams, who other players say has operated bounty systems on other teams, from ever coaching another NFL game. And suspending for a year head coaches and general managers who allow it would be reasonable.

Also appropriate would be requiring teams on which such systems operate to forfeit draft picks and face steep fines. Players who target other players for money — or for any other reason — should face suspensions and fines as well.

“This type of conduct will not be tolerated,” Commissioner Goodell said.

It simply cannot be tolerated. One way to eradicate it is to make sure the penalties are intolerable for those who might consider it.

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