Yeah, I heard the audio of former New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams urging his players to injure various 49ers before their January playoff game. It's pretty compelling — not just because he wanted to maim Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis, and not just because he may have been illegally taped without his consent, but because Williams might be the worst motivational speaker in recent American history. No wonder the Saints lost that game. If that was a sports movie scene, the director would have fired Williams and replaced him with another actor. What a buffoon.
Of course, it's 2012 — the Year of Internet Self-Righteousness — which means we need to feign disgust, pile on the Saints, argue for Williams to receive the NFL's death penalty and basically freak out that a football coach would ever do that. So let's concede the following points. No, you shouldn't instruct your players to hurt people. Yes, you should be fined and suspended for that. Yes, Gregg Williams came off like an insensitive Neanderthal, and yes, it would be difficult (if not impossible) to take him seriously as a coach again. His professional career is over. The tape is pretty damning. Even if it's far-fetched that any Saint listened to that speech and thought to himself, Maybe my creepy weirdo of a coach is right, maybe I SHOULD go after Michael Crabtree's ACL!
But there's a bigger story here: the laughable notion that anyone can change an ingrained culture of violence overnight. Any parent knows that kids never listen the first time — it takes four or five times, and usually a raised voice or a threat, before they heed your wishes. Players and coaches are wired the same way. The league never turned off its "We're gonna look the other way, keep being violent and keep those hits coming" switch until the 2010 season, after that infamous October weekend with all the signature hits, when Roger Goodell said, "Oh, crap, maybe I should start fining these guys because the Sports Legacy Institute has accumulated three-plus years of rock-solid concussion evidence and lawsuits are coming. Better later than never!"
And so the league started cracking down. Less than 18 months later, we're supposed to be baffled and appalled that the Saints would shrug off those warnings, that they wanted to win money for crippling opponents or knocking them out … you know, because football players aren't supposed to think that way or something. (Watching ESPN this morning was pretty funny — it's like every talking head took an oath to forget the network was running "JACKED UP!" segments a few scant years ago.) My two favorite Patriots victories were Super Bowl XXXVI (over the Rams) and the 2003 AFC Championship (when the defense beat up Colts receivers so badly that Colts GM Bill Polian convinced the league to change the line of scrimmage contact rules the following summer). I am not naïve enough to believe that, before both of those games, Bill Belichick didn't tell his players, "I want you to beat the absolute crap out of (fill in: Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Ricky Proehl, etc.) and make them remember you the next time they go over the middle … do whatever it takes."
Actually, I wouldn't be surprised if Belichick uttered something more ominous than that. That's football, a sport in which coaches holler things like, "NOW GO OUT THERE AND KILL THEM!" Do they mean, literally, to murder them? Of course not. It's just the way these meatheads talk. It's the language of their barbaric game. Watch this clip, for God's sake. Normal human beings don't interact like this. When it came out that Williams (and his players) crossed the line, the Saints became The Scapegoat Du Jour for a league that desperately needed one. In case this wasn't clear, everyone, the NFL is taking player safety seriously now! Emphasis on the word "now." It's a transparent ploy to make up for decades of real negligence, as well as mounting evidence that the next generation of football players (any teenager, basically) can be ruined by one concussion. Meanwhile …