NFL Bounty Program; Ryan Braun/Bowie Kuhn/Marvin Miller; Steve Bartkowski/Leigh Steinberg; Arnold Palmer
by Glenn Dickey
May 16, 2012

16MAY

THE NFL is working hard with groups seeking better helmets and equipment for high school players and younger, which is a good thing. But it doesn’t go far enough. They need to be looking at the helmets and equipment themselves.

Concussions are the biggest concern right now, with lawsuits from retiring players already on file. One of my readers, who has a law degree, doubts that these lawsuits will succeed because there is a presumption of danger for football players in a rough sport. But Charley Krueger’s suit against the 49ers, for which he got a $2.3 million settlement in 1988 because he was forced to play when he was already injured, is a precedent.

I haven’t seen any lawyer’s briefs in the cases now on file but I’m sure they include charges that NFL teams didn’t properly protect their players against that. Anybody who has been around the NFL for any period of time knows that potential concussions were never part of the discussion. When a player got a hit to the head and got up groggy, the common reaction was “He got his bell rung.” You’ve no doubt heard that expression from announcers. And, the player soon went back in the game.

The NFL should be doing some serious research now on helmets, which are probably a big part of the concussion problem. The construction of a helmet means that a blow to the head can reverberate through the helmet, in essence doubling the impact of the blow. The helmets look good, promoting the war-like image the NFL loves, but are they truly doing the job they’re supposed to, or are they part of the problem. I suspect the latter.

The same goes for the equipment. The pads that are used below the uniform are hard plastic. Do you know what the shells of current cars are made? Same stuff. That equipment does damage to opponents more than it truly protects players. As I’ve written before, rugby is a rough sport with far fewer injuries than football, because they don’t wear this kind of equipment. The NFL needs to make serious changes in the players’ uniforms, to protect themselves. They’ll still look huge on the field, because they are.

Meanwhile, I approve of the way NFL commissioner Roger Goodall came down hard on the New Orleans Saints, coach Sean Payton and then defensive coordinator Gregg Williams for the “bounty” program.

This program was truly unprecedented. I’ve covered pro football on a regular basis since starting as beat writer for the Raiders in 1967 and even wrote stories on 49ers and Raiders games before that, and I’ve never heard of anything like this.

Pro football was a much rougher sport in the ‘60s and ‘70s, before a series of rules changes and interpretations put handcuffs on the defense. I saw some of the roughest play first hand, because the battles the Raiders had with the Pittsburgh Steelers were warlike. Defensive backs George Atkinson and Jack Tatum would compete for putting hard hits on Steelers’ receivers, and the Steelers were just as brutal in return – a factor Pittsburgh coach Chuck Noll overlooked when he referred to the Raiders as a “criminal element in the NFL.”

But, there were no cash rewards for that behavior, just personal satisfaction.

It was that way throughout the NFL at the time. The ‘60s and ‘70s had some brutal middle linebackers – Dick Butkus, Willie Lanier, Ray Nitschke, Charley Bednarik, among many. Teams didn’t run pass routes in the middle of the field because linebackers would simply level the receivers. (That caused a change in the rules in the late ‘70s that made it possible for Bill Walsh to make that pass pattern a staple of his offense.) And, who can ever forget Bednarik standing over a prone Frank Gifford, celebrating a particularly brutal tackle, which sidelined Gifford for a year.

But, those tackles were legal under the rules of the day. And, they were not rewarded by bonuses as part of a regular program.

Having talked to former players on this subject, I can say unequivocally that no “bounty” program existed in the NFL, before Gregg Williams. And, I’m not alone in making that statement. John Madden has, too, and nobody knows the NFL better than Madden.

So, Goodall was right to nip this program in the bud. But, without looking at the equipment and dealing seriously with the drug program, it’s not enough. Goodall needs to work with the leadership of the NFL Players Association to convince them that human growth hormone testing must be allowed because having athletes who are so unnaturally huge and fast is doing great damage to them.

AT LEAST, the NFL is trying to deal with its problems. Baseball, though, has another idea: Fire those who disagree.

When Ryan Braun was supposedly found to have tested positive for taking an illegal substance, it should have raised some serious caution flags. For one thing, there had absolutely been no spike in his statistics, with a five-year record of unusually consistent marks. For another, he seemed clean-cut, a great example to youth. There were serious questions about the testing process, and Braun volunteered to take another test immediately – and tested well within the normal range.

But, MLB immediately announced that Braun was suspended for 50 days. He appealed. The three-man group that decides this consistents of one MLB representative, one representative from the union and an arbitrator, who has to break the tie of the predictable votes by the other two. In this case, the arbitrator ruled in Braun’s favor because of serious questions about the handling of his sample.

So, MLB fired the arbitrator, who, BTW, is also working for the NFL and has a very good reputation.

But, that’s not the first time MLB has run afoul of an independent arbitrator. Most famously, in December, 1975, it was Peter Seitz who ruled in favor of the players, that the reserve clause owners had always used to keep players referred only to one year after a player’s contract had expired, not into perpetuity. A lawyer should have seen that coming but commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who was a lawyer, didn’t. Typical of Kuhn as a commissioner, an empty suit, loved by owners and the baseball establishment, including the Veterans Committee which voted in Kuhn in 2008, a few months after his death. Meanwhile, Marvin Miller, the executive director for the Players Association at that time and a man who has had far more influence on baseball history than Kuhn, has been ignored, though even current commissioner Bud Selig says he belongs.

THE RAIDERS are running away form the Al Davis legacy so fast it’s amazing they don’t have wind burn. They signed up for the NFL program checking on equipment for young people even sooner than the 49ers, they’ve had numerous community outreach programs with their players, and they’re even become media-friendly, in direct opposite to their approach under Davis.

In the rookie/free agent camp, they even allowed interviews of assistant coaches, a real no-no under Davis. Of course, interviewing assistants wouldn’t have been much help, anyway, because they didn’t know what was happening until they got the word from on high. Davis was known to call the offensive coordinator as late as Thursday night and demand to see his game plan for Sunday – which he would then change.

The current Raiders, though, still have to deal with the remnants of the Hue Jackson regime, as was shown during the rookie mini-camp when Tyrelle Pryor, who needs the work, couldn’t get it because he was used on one play in the 2011 season, which was botched, with the Raiders drawing a penalty for an illegal formation. Pryor sat on the bench the rest of the way.

That was unfortunately typical of Jackson, a classic example of the Peter Principle. He was a very good offensive coordinator who was totally overmatched as a head coach, which he emphasized with a blast at his players at season’s end. That ended any possibility that he’d be back as head coach for the Raiders – or any other team in the future. He’ll be lucky to work back to an offensive coordinator’s job.

STEVE BARTKOWSKI’s election to the College Football Hall of Fame is good news for Cal alums. I thoroughly enjoyed Bartkowski’s play for the Bears, though I thought that Craig Morton was a better quarterback. Morton, though, was virtually all Cal had when he was a senior in 1964. Bartkowski was surrounded by a much better cast in 1975.

Bartkowski was also Leigh Steinberg’s first client, and Leigh broke in with a splash, with the highest contract for a draft pick at that point.

Leigh and I also met for the first time. He called me and we met over those great burgers at Kip’s on Durant in Berkeley, one of my hangouts when I was a student. He told me he planned to have all his clients give to worthy organizations, which was not a tradition among athletes, then or now.

That began a long relationship. My son even worked for Leigh during summers when he was going to law school, doing the grunt work. That convinced Scott that sports law was not in his future, and he’s happy now as a partner in the law firm headed up by Louise Renne.

Leigh has fallen on hard times lately because of his problems with alcohol, but he’s a good-hearted person and I wish him well in his attempt to get back as a top agent.

BRUCE JENKINS: Some readers have questioned my criticism last week of Bruce for his remarks about the NFL’s bounty program, so I thought I’d clarify my position. I regard Bruce as the best sports columnist on The Chronicle but with that status comes a responsibility not to write something that makes you look like a fool.

Bruce does some sports very well, the NBA and tennis, for instance. He does a good job on baseball, if you accept his view that no change to the sport since he was 16 is a good one. He’s on top of the surfing scene, and I’m sure you were as devastated as I when the Maverick competition was canceled this year. He does a decent job on college football, when he writes columns on Cal and Stanford games, and he knows as much about golf as I do, which is basically that Tiger Woods has lost his mojo.

But the one sport he absolutely does not know is pro football, because he neither comes to games nor talks to coaches.

When you don’t know a sport, you have two choices: 1) Learn about it; or 2) Don’t write on it. I faced that decision when the Sharks started in San Jose. Early in life, I had followed hockey because we lived in northern Minnesota; in September, our schoolyard was flooded so it could freeze over and be an ice skating/hockey rink. Then, when I was 10, we moved to San Diego. No frozen schoolyards there. So, I concentrated on baseball and forgot hockey. When the Sharks started, I decided on the second alternative because I reasoned that hockey would not be a major sport in the Bay Area and that the interest would be primarily in San Jose, a city in which The Chronicle had few subscribers. I haven’t regretted that decision.

Jenkins really doesn’t have that option because pro football is by far the most important sport in the Bay Area and nationally. But, he should stick to safer subjects than the bounty program because his statement that these programs have existed at least since the ‘50s was outrageous.

MASTERS: The PGA decided to keep the tournament on its schedule, despite its blatant discrimination against women, because it’s such a great event. So, the Neanderthals running the club at Augusta win.

This idea that sport should triumph over human rights is offensive to me, but there don’t seem to be many golf writers who agree with that. They all write about what a magnificent event it is, without devoting much thought, if any, to how the club at which it is held is run.

I agree that the Masters is a great event. I think it is the best that golf has to offer, even better than the U.S. Open. But, that should not trump the club’s philosophy, which is pure 19th century, unfortunately fitting for a small Southern town.

The only thing that will ever change this is if the Neanderthals are hit where they live, in their pocketbooks. I was hoping the PGA would “man up”, but no. Now, the only hope is that advertisers will start to pull out. Don’t expect golf writers to lead the charge. They believe that “the event is too good to spoil” crap. Their wives should hit them over the head with a frying pan to knock some sense into their heads.

MY FASCINATION with golf, one of the many sports I played poorly, ended when I got married in 1967. I decided that any spare time I had, I’d spend with my wife, certainly one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made.

Before that, though, I covered the 1966 U. S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, to which it will return next month, and that was a great thrill to me. I walked the course one day behind Ben Hogan, whom I had long admired from afar. Another time, I followed Jack Nicklaus, whom I had seen earlier when he won the U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach, when I was still working in Watsonville.

But the big story in golf at that time and in that tournament was Arnold Palmer, whose gambling style had captivated so many fans and catapulted golf into a major sports attraction. Palmer dominated this tournament, too, until he got too eager to set a scoring record and made too many gambles on the back nine on the fourth day, falling into a tie with Billy Casper and into a playoff the next day, which he lost.

Palmer was also great to the media, and I still remember one humorous episode in the locker room at Olympic that week. Arnie was talking about his round when Ed Schoenfeld of the Oakland Tribune started bearing in. Schoenfeld was extremely near-sighted, and he always had a cigar in his mouth. He kept getting closer and closer to Palmer, until Arnie reared back and started brushing cigar ashes off his face!

If you want to know why we all loved Arnie, he then continued with the interview.


What do YOU think? Let me know!

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