It has recently come to light that the New Orleans Saints, under the direction of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, engaged in a practice of paying “bounties,” financial benefits awarded to players who made extremely hard or vicious hits on certain opposing players. While the precise details of these bounties is apparently open to debate, the basic idea is this. Prior to a game with, say, the Arizona Cardinals, it would be decided that certain key Cardinals players would be the subject of bounty payments if they were eliminated from the game by a hard hit. In other words, knock Kurt Warner out of the game, and receive an extra $100.
Now that this has come to light, there are a variety of issues under discussion. The first, and most central, is whether this is truly objectionable conduct, or simply “part of the game.” Ancillary, but related, is the fact that many people who participated in the practice clearly regarded it as wrong, yet did nothing. Williams himself has said as much.
These issues are interesting, but not my focus here. Instead, I want to use this as an opportunity to demonstrate the important difference between professional ethics, and ethics more generally. There are compelling arguments that one might make in favor of a bounty program, and the opinion of most current and former players is apparently that there is nothing really wrong with it. Of course, there are also good arguments one could make on the other side, probably by pointing to the pervasive ethical norm against deliberately harming others for one’s own benefit. Clearly this is the motivation for a bounty system, which suggests that it is, at least prima facie, morally impermissible.
All of this, for my purposes, is beside the point. At the time this practice was going on, there was an explicit ban on bounty programs in the NFL. The NFL acts much like other professional associations and organizations, in that it establishes and enforces many of the ethical norms that operate within a practice. Just like the American Medical Association sets the ethical standards for physicians, the NFL decides what sort of conduct is ethical for its players. In this case, there is simply no question that the professional ethics of the NFL dictated that these actions were morally impermissible, irrespective of the reasonableness of that ethical norm.
This is not the first time, and certainly will not be the last, when a player or group of players has been caught or fined for doing something that is prohibited by the professional ethics of the NFL, and has responded by challenging the reasonableness of the violated ethical norm. Williams has been admirable in not doing this, but other players have not had similarly good sense.
My point is simply that these are two different issues. It is one thing to argue that an ethical norm is unreasonable, and quite another to argue that one should not be punished for violating that norm once it is established. By failing to differentiate, even in their own minds, between the reasonableness of a professional norm and the fact of an action’s being prohibited by a professional norm, many players and coaches come off as missing the point, complaining because the rules are “unfair” only because they got caught breaking them.
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.