Hall of Fame defensive back Emmitt Thomas was my coach in Washington. Thomas played for the Kansas City Chiefs in the late 60’s and early 70’s. We had this running dialogue whereby Thomas would insist that very few of the players today could have played in his era. There were issues of toughness and commitment and he was only half-joking.

One player who always made the cut was Reggie White. Thomas used to call him the “Preacher Man.” Whenever we would watch tape the featured the Packers defense, Thomas would always comment on something White did. White was hard to miss, the way it’s hard to miss Mt. Fuji if you’re anywhere near Tokyo.

Whenever White was held by an offensive lineman—and it was pretty often, though without success—White would give the offender a stern talking to. You couldn’t hear it but you could see on film. White was neither visibly upset nor reliant on grand gestures. He would put his arm around the lineman and walk with him, presumably lecturing him on the nuances of acceptable pass blocking.

Reggie White was above reproach. It was mostly his level of play—which was unmatched, that led to this. But it was also his outspoken faith. He was an ordained minister. That particular label carries with it a certain amount of “flexibility,” for lack of a better word. On matters of morality, a Christian man gets the benefit of the doubt.

Recently, the NFL Players Association filed papers in federal court pointing out that the NFL permitted a 1996 incentive program for big hits. It was funded by Reggie White. The union argues that if this program was permissible then, why was Browns linebacker Scott Fujita suspended for his alleged role in the Saints Bounty?

The union contends that while the NFL’s player safety goals may have evolved since 1996, it’s not fair to punish players for behavior it previously permitted without formally spelling out that such behavior is no longer allowed.

US PresswireHow much longer will Scott Fujita be cast in a negative light?

It’s about the perception. It was okay with the public because the public didn’t know about it. It was okay with the league because…the public didn’t know about it.

I think if the public had known about this in 1996, it would have shrugged its collective shoulders. That’s for two reasons. One, the public knows that football is a violent game. Two, Reggie White was a Christian, so the act of rewarding his teammates for big hits in a violent sport could never be construed as a “moral” issue.

In 1996, the league’s most pressing issue of morality was Art Modell’s decision to pack up and take his show to Baltimore. If Modell agreed to leave the name Cleveland Browns behind, then was all good. The devoted fans were just expected to “get over it.” That’s why this bounty thing is so strange.

Fujita, Vilma, Jimmy Kennedy, and Anthony Hargrove are accused of taking part in a plan to knock opposing players out of the game. Once again, for the record, I’ll state the reality of this scenario. On every play in every game, a defensive player hits an opposing player as hard as he can. There are times, during the course of a collision, when one individual suffers at best, a moment of disorientation, and at worst, a severe concussion.

The odds of successfully hitting a person in order to purposely cause a concussion are as slim as Alex Rodriguez hitting a homerun whenever he wants to. It doesn’t happen that way. Nothing in life happens that way. Fujita and company are charged with paying teammates for big hits that could knock an opponent out of the game.

But like I just said, there’s no way to purposely and accurately do that, unless you’re purposely going after knee ligaments. But there is no evidence of any Saints player doing this.

Reggie White called his incentive program, which included payments as high as $500, “Smash for Cash.” Nothing sinister about that. Has a nice, harmless ring to it. It’s sort of like the word, euthanized. Let’s use it in a sentence: “When the underperforming dogs were no longer useful, Michael Vick had them euthanized.” Wow. In that light, euthanasia comes off like a term you might hear at an overcrowded animal shelter.

But really, though. This is all about labels. Trying to grow the National Football League requires the proper packaging—the lifeblood of any marketing concept. But professional football is already the most popular sport in the country.

When that’s the case, marketing plans get dicey. In the effort to make a successful product even more “consumer-friendly,” there’s the inherent risk of turning the operation into a parody of what it truly is.

That, my friends, is the essence of Bounty Gate. On the topic of cash-based incentives, the purists know the score. This sort of thing has always been there. The newcomers need to be reassured, not the true fans. They can handle he thorny truth. It’s only fitting that the late Reggie White would be invoked right about now.

White’s was a complicated legacy. In his day, he embodied the delicate balance of social consciousness and immensely talented nimble brute. Back then that was the most that we could expect from a professional football player.

But after fifteen years of dominance, he spent that one afternoon in the Wisconsin Legislature famously applying all kinds of troubling “labels” to Latino folks, Asian folks, Jewish folks, and gay folks. His faith wasn’t enough to give him the benefit of the doubt. In the process he lost some people.

This interminable bounty investigation is nothing more than an effort to sell professional football, to present it in the best possible light. Roger Goodell may as well be selling Christianity.

To do that there must be some allowances for human behavior. To his credit, Reggie White did that. White was one of those voices railing against abortion. Rather than casting judgment, he started Hope Place, a shelter for unwed pregnant mothers.

Said White, “We preach that abortion clinics are wrong, but we have to provide these girls with something more than words.”


You can follow Alan Grant on twitter @ AlanGrant_NFL