Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

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.

Follow us on Twitter: @CNN Opinion

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

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

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT