Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

NFL takes good first step to protect players

By William J. Bennett, CNN Contributor
April 10, 2012 -- Updated 1202 GMT (2002 HKT)
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
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT