Risking injury for money is one kind of brave. Liam Day argues that it’s less brave than refusing to.
So Paul Tagliabue has weighed in and found the evidence wanting. As a result, the appeals filed by the four New Orleans Saints suspended for participating in a bounty program in which bonuses were promised to players who injure opponents were upheld and the suspensions vacated.
I won’t get into the evidentiary particulars of the individual cases. Josh Levin has done that over at Slate and done it well. (My favorite tidbit, pulled directly from Tagliabue’s ruling, was Commissioner Goodell’s claim that the revelation that the voice on the video tape used as evidence against Anthony Hargrove was not, in fact, the defensive lineman’s voice “did not affect the level of discipline imposed on Mr. Hargrove.” Excuse me.)
What I want to explore is one of the justifications former Commissioner Tagliabue gives for vacating the suspensions: that the players involved in the bounty program were merely employees and therefore at risk if they did not follow their coaches’ directions. If it were not a bit of an overstatement, we might call this the Nuremberg defense.
Chain of command. For most individuals within any organization there is a tension between the discipline required to follow the orders or directions given by supervisors and the individual dictates of one’s conscience. Fortunately, for most us, this tension rarely erupts into full-fledged crisis because our supervisors don’t often direct us to do anything unethical. At least I hope not.
But, of course, that isn’t always true and that it isn’t is the reason we have whistle-blower laws, something the NFL doesn’t, as far as I know, have. And maybe it should. It is asking a lot of men who play a violent game with a short shelflife, most of them without a guaranteed contract, to blow the whistle on men with the power to cut them from their teams and vacate their contracts. But I’m not sure that should fully absolve the players of their culpability in this matter. Therein lies the difference between physical and moral courage.
It takes an extraordinary amount of physical courage to play football, or, at least, I have to assume it does, as I’ve never played the sport myself. It would have taken an equal amount of moral courage on the part of any member of the New Orleans Saints to stand up and tell his coaches that paying them to injure opponents is wrong. 53 members of the Saints display the former 16 Sundays every year. None of them displayed the latter. I can only conclude from this discrepancy that, of the two types of courage, the physical is by far the cheaper.
Photo credit: AP, 2011