Full disclosure: I’m a 49ers football fan.
So when I read this ESPN article about how former New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams instructed his team to try to intentionally injure 49ers in a playoff game, I was a little more bothered than I should have been. But even setting aside my team allegiances, the article shows a very dark side to the NFL and a game that many of us love.
An audio recording of Williams speaking to his team on the eve of their game with the 49ers contains some very disturbing statements. Williams instructed his players to specifically target the San Francisco's quarterback, tight end and top two receivers. On multiple occasions, he told Saints defenders to aim for their opponents' heads and chins when tackling, even using such inflammatory language as “Kill the head and the body will die.”
The NFL is already in hot water over head injuries in football and whether the league is doing enough to protect players and warn them about the risks of concussions and head trauma. Head injuries can be very serious, as the other attorneys in my firm and I know all too well. Multiple retired players have brought lawsuits against the NFL for health issues and disabilities that they now face. Williams’ recorded statements certainly don’t help the league's image, and they raise questions about the role coaches play in raising the stakes of the game.
There is a counterpoint to this argument, of course, and it's one that I've heard many times. Admittedly, I've never been in a college or pro football locker room, but many of those who have say this type of Saturday evening speech is pretty typical. Also, there is little evidence that Saints players actually delivered an inordinate number of illegal hits. So the argument that Williams and the team are being punished for words and not actions also makes some sense. The issue, in my opinion, is that Williams appeas to have advocated and encouraged violence itself rather than hard play. That crosses a line.
No doubt, professional football is a violent game. Most fans want it to be. The hit I remember the most during the Saints-49ers playoff game was delivered to Saints running back Pierre Thomas as he approached the goal line. The collision with San Francisco safety Donte Whitner was particularly hard. But it was legal under current rules and caused Thomas to fumble the football.
The 49ers recovered the ball, and Thomas never came back in the game. As a Niners fan, I was cheering along with everyone else. I am not advocating tag or flag football league here, but let's hope that statements like the ones Willims made during his locker room speech don't end up causing serious and unnecessary injuries and destroy a game so many love.
About the Editors: The Shapiro, Lewis & Appleton personal injury law firm, which has offices in Virginia (VA) and North Carolina (NC), edits the injury law blogs Virginia Beach Injuryboard, Norfolk Injuryboard and Northeast North Carolina Injuryboard as pro bono services.