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Pregame Speech Reignites NFL Bounty Scandal


This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

The bounty scandal of the National Football League got even worse this week. A documentary filmmaker released audio of New Orleans Saint's former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams giving a locker room speech to his players before a game against the San Francisco 49ers and commanding them to inflict specific disabling injuries on their opponents, including running back Frank Gore.

GREGG WILLIAMS: Kill the head and the body will die. We've got to do everything in the world to make sure we kill Frank Gore's head. We want him running sideways. We want his head sideways.

SIMON: The NFL had already suspended Williams and Saints head coach Sean Payton for the team's bounty program that paid players for injuring opponents during games. Howard Bryant, senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the magazine, joins us from the studios of New England Public Radio in Amherst.

Howard, thanks for being with us.

HOWARD BRYANT: Hey, good morning, Scott.

SIMON: The essential facts have been reported. Why do so many people - I must say, including me - find the audio we heard this week to be literally sickening?

BRYANT: Well, I think the reason is because the NFL, and I think football in general, has done a pretty remarkable job over the years shielding people from what the game is, making a distinction between the violence on the field and the culture in the locker room.

And what this audio tape does is it takes away that space. It bridges that gap. And now you see what football really is. And obviously, Gregg Williams was extreme in that audio. There's no question that he is - what's the best way to say it? He's the side of this where you go, OK, are coaches really, really like this?

However, I don't think that he's the anomaly. Was he extreme? Absolutely. Did he say things there in terms of specifically injuring players that I think would disgust anybody involved in football? Absolutely. But there's no question in my mind that anybody who's been around football, whether we're talking about the high school level, the college level or the pro level has heard something along those lines. This is what football is.

SIMON: I must say, I heard in coverage last night Boomer Esiason and Kurt Warner - obviously, retired quarterbacks - Kurt Warner, whose name figures into this, as a matter of fact, because he was an object of the Saint's bounties - say that in all their years in the game they never head a locker room speech quite like that.

BRYANT: Well, I find that somewhat hard to believe. I think that maybe what they're talking about - certainly what they're talking about is the targeting. And I agree, I would tend to agree with them that you would hope that in all the years that they've been in football you didn't hear coaches say take out a player's ACL. I mean, the level of specificity here will probably end Gregg Williams' career.

But I totally disagree with them that they've never heard defensive players. And remember, those guys are quarterbacks. That you've never heard defensive coaches talking about ripping a guy's head off or having a guy go sideways. Obviously, in some of those great games when Kurt Warner was with the Rams throwing for four and five touchdowns in a half, there were coaches on the other side of the field saying take him out. There's no question in my mind about that.

SIMON: Do you get a sense at some point the public is going to get appalled by this?

BRYANT: Well, I think it depends on what you mean by the public. I think the fans, the hardcore football fan, is a football fan at heart. And that's what they're going - they're still going to pay their money to watch the game. And I think that change doesn't always come from the fans. Think about steroids in baseball. People still went and watched the games and the revenue and the money kept coming.

I think where you're going to see the change are the people who are on the fringe, who are casual fans, who were shocked by this and Congress who is going to be shocked by this. And I think that's where the change comes from, where you have people look at this game and say this is not what we thought your game was. That's why the NFL is being so harsh with its penalties.

SIMON: I read a thoughtful piece in the New Orleans Times-Picayune this week which criticized the headhunting disgrace to the city that embraced the team as a living metaphor for its revival and suggested that the NFL donate the fines and the salary that the team doesn't have to pay Sean Payton to athletic programs for young people in New Orleans. Creative idea?

BRYANT: I think it's a great idea. And I think that the NFL has to start doing something, because you can't just collect the fines and say that, OK, we've done our job. They have an image issue. They have a culture issue. And if they don't fix it, you're going to find fewer and fewer people playing the sport, which is what they really don't want.

SIMON: Howard Bryant of ESPN, thanks so much.

BRYANT: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.