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NFL takes good first step to protect players

By William J. Bennett, CNN Contributor
updated 8:02 AM EDT, Tue April 10, 2012
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has made it clear that the NFL will not tolerate this type of violence, William Bennett says.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has made it clear that the NFL will not tolerate this type of violence, William Bennett says.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell turns down appeals of bounty punishments
  • New Orleans Saints coordinator had told players to target opponents for specific injuries
  • Bill Bennett says such behavior goes way beyond the normal physicality of football
  • He says Goodell needs to respond to the evidence of harm from concussions in football

Editor's note: William J. Bennett, a CNN contributor, is the author of "The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood." He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.

(CNN) -- In the NFL, controlled violence is, and always will be, an essential part of the sport. As fans, we have no problem with coaches telling players to run hard, hit hard and tackle hard, because we know that we can't take that kind of contact and tough physicality out of football.

However, as a long-time fan of the NFL, when I heard the audio of former New Orleans Saints Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams instructing his team to injure members of the San Francisco 49ers before their playoff game in January, I was really bothered.

Williams explicitly commanded his defense to target particular players with the intent of injuring them and taking them out of the game. Talking about 49ers star running back Frank Gore, Williams said, "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."

William Bennett
William Bennett

Williams coached his players to take out the knees of the 49ers No. 1 receiver, Michael Crabtree. "We need to decide whether Crabtree wants to be a fake-ass prima donna, or he wants to be a tough guy. We need to find out. He becomes human when we (expletive) take out that outside ACL," Williams said, referring to the anterior cruciate ligament, one of the major ligaments in the knee, which when torn or injured can end a player's season.

Another 49ers receiver, Kyle Williams, entered the game recovering from a concussion and Gregg Williams told his players, "We need to find out in the first two series of the game, that little wide receiver, No. 10, about his concussion. We need to (expletive) put a lick on him right now. He needs to decide."

The difference between Williams' comments and typical football coaching rhetoric, which can be almost as coarse, is that the violence is personalized. As Shakespeare wrote, it gives "to airy nothingness a local habitation and a name." Williams was not just talking about tackling; he targeted specific players and specific parts of their bodies. His intent was to hurt 49ers players, rather than to stop them.

This may be a subtle distinction, but it is a real one. And such distinctions determine whether the game of football is played within or outside the rules. The Williams audio makes the seriousness of the NFL's bounty scandal very real.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has made it clear that the NFL will not tolerate this type of violence or any bounty systems. His indefinite suspension of Williams and separate suspensions and punishments levied on the Saints were meant to send a loud and clear message to the rest of the league as well as fans of the sport that the NFL takes this issue seriously. On Monday, Goodell stood tough and rejected the Saints' appeal and upheld the season-long suspension of Saints Coach Sean Payton and two other team executives.

The NFL's tough response leads us to wonder how it will respond to another violence-related problem threatening the league: the growing concussion-driven Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy epidemic.

In 2009, a study commissioned by the NFL reported that former players between the ages of 30 and 49 were 19 times more likely to be diagnosed with severe memory-related diseases than an average person. Today's coaches, trainers, and players are much more aware of the severity of head trauma than those of a decade ago, but some say it's too little too late.

Jim McMahon, the successful NFL quarterback of the late 1980s and early 1990s, recently admitted that, because of multiple concussions, his "memory's pretty much gone. There are a lot of times when I walk into a room and forget why I walked in there." Legendary running back Tony Dorsett was one of the most recent players to join more than 300 former NFL players in suing the NFL for negligence in their handling of concussions and other injuries. Dorsett, who is also battling memory loss, says that the league should have done more to warn players about the consequences of head trauma.

The problem doesn't fall solely on the shoulders of the NFL. Scientific evidence is clear that concussions have devastating effects on our youngest athletes. Teenagers with multiple concussions can exhibit memory loss, amnesia and significantly lower grade-point averages than teenagers without head injuries. By the time they reach the NFL, these young adults can be one or two concussions away from serious brain damage.

The NFL is a valuable institution that has done much good for our youth and Goodell has done a fine, exemplary job so far. He sent a strong, clear message to Gregg Williams and the Saints that illegal forms of contact and violence within the sport will not be permitted. Let's hope he handles the concussion problem with similar clarity, and continues to protect players while maintaining the physicality and integrity of the sport.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William Bennett.

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