Bounties, Vikings and flag football

As a lifelong Vikings fan, the bounty scandal of the badly misnamed New Orleans Saints caught my attention, not least because during the 2009 NFC Championship game between my Vikings and those thugs I spent much of the game screaming at the television — and at Facebook — about what seemed an obvious attempt to injure quarterback Brett Favre. This did not thrill my friends with New Orleans sympathies.

When the proof of what my lying eyes had told me in 2009 came out last month, I was off of Facebook for Lent, so I had less opportunity to get back into debates about it with those who took issue with me. In other words, I had less opportunity to say “I told you so,” which is probably just as well.

I also had more opportunity to reflect on it. One thing I concluded is that I’m happy it wasn’t my team being caught at this after it won its first Super Bowl. I hope it would be just as easy for me to disown and denounce that kind of conduct if it were intimately connected to a triumph for my long-suffering team as it is now, but I’m not sure it would be. Life is full of little allegiances that can tend to blind us.

The second thing was how disgusted I was to hear people defending this as something common, usually by eroding the distinction between a hard hit and wishing to see someone injured. Conversely, I was very happy to hear players like Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway say it isn’t common at all. In fact, hearing what he had to say (MP3) about the Vikings in his seven years with the team made me proud to be a Vikings fan, no small task after the last couple of cringeworthy seasons.

With the coaching staff that we’ve had here, that would completely be something that wouldn’t happen around here. Obviously the game is a very physical game and you want for everyone to be tough and make people respect you as a defense, but there’s also a level of respect for the people you play against and a level of respect for the game, and I think when you take it to that next level … to me it’s taking away from the game of football and what it really means. … When you take it to that level of disrespect for your opponent, it just goes to another thing and another level. There’s a human side of this too, where those people you’re trying to hurt have families and have kids and have careers.

… After the game you go across the sideline and you congratulate or say “good game” to your opponent and do the handshake and be respectful, and that’s something that gets passed down to generations and to kids that look at us and look at us as role models.

That’s exactly right. And if it’s a choice between a team full of guys who think like that and never win a Super Bowl and winning a bunch of championships with the alternative, I’ll take the team of Chad Greenways every time.

The third thing is that I think this will change how I watch football. I have half-joked lately that our society is not far away from a return of blood sports in the stadium like the Roman gladiators. Reading some of the commentary has me reflecting on my own part in all that. I’m not the sort of guy who likes to see replays of Joe Theisman getting his leg broken. But I sure do remember plays like that and relish recounting the story of the time Joey Browner broke that guy’s legs pulling him down from behind. I have been known to cheer the massive hit, to tune in on those Steelers-Ravens games hoping to see some nasty defense. I’ve watched hockey fight videos. I used to watch boxing.

I find myself thinking it’s time for an examination of conscience about all that. People who don’t like the “new” NFL with its rules protecting defenseless quarterbacks and receivers like to scoff, “Why not just play flag football?” But if they’re right that there’s no distinction between a big football hit and trying to end someone’s game or career, then it’s hard for me as a Christian to imagine how I would justify being a fan of that game. If it’s really a choice between gladiators trying to murderize each other on a football field and an exciting game of flag football — a hypothetical I don’t grant — I guess it’s got to be flag football for me.