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Saints' bounty program crossed the line

The Saints’ Jonathan Casillas lays hit Jay Cutler during game last season. Recent news Saints bounties has gotten NFL’s attention.

The Saints’ Jonathan Casillas lays a hit on Jay Cutler during a game last season. Recent news of Saints bounties has gotten the NFL’s attention. | AP

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Updated: April 6, 2012 8:11AM

The rules of morality are
slippery and without straight borders.

It’s OK to kill a mouse in your house, for instance, but is it OK to kill a raccoon? If not, why not?

We eat duck, cow, pig, chicken and swordfish but not dog, cat or horse. Is that because the last three animals are our friends?

Have you ever seen a child who had a pet pig, a pet chicken, a pet cow? I have.

As humans, we build and rebuild ethical rules to separate ourselves from conscience-free beasts for whom the only code is kill or be killed. And while we tinker with these rules — community decisions that spring from culture, religion, education and economics, among other influences — the world around us evolves to make each new tweak vague once more.

The bounty system of rewarding players for knocking foes out of a game — especially for getting them ‘‘carted off’’ — used by former New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has become the rage in ethical discussions. The ‘‘system’’ was uncovered by the NFL, and it looks as though the league will mete out thousands — even hundreds of thousands — of dollars in fines.

Williams is meeting Monday with NFL security officials in New York to discuss the situation. Williams, now the defensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams, will be the point man in this ugly mess. But what he was doing was, in a sense, encouraged by every NFL team out there. Maybe the knockouts and administered injuries weren’t rewarded with rolls of bills, but they sure are rewarded with respect, pats on the back, film-room cheers and ultimately, bigger contracts.

And it isn’t just the NFL that teaches the ruthless truth that a scared or crippled opponent is a useless opponent. What do you think all those leaves and axes and skulls and crossbones on college helmets are? They’re not for charity work. High schools, same thing.

Like notches on a gunman’s belt or X’s on a bomber’s undercarriage, payola in football — even if it’s just a coach’s hug — signifies macho success.

But where is the line? We know when it has been crossed, we think. And that can mean when it has been exposed.

For example, an entire stadium will cheer a middle linebacker’s hit on a runner that separates the man from the ball and his senses, but those same people will feel bad about it if it is thrust into their faces.

The linebacker got cash money for sending that man to the hospital? No, no, I don’t want to know that.

Back when Jack Tatum was headhunting in the NFL, he and fellow Oakland Raiders defensive back George Atkinson had their own seasonlong reward system. A ‘‘limp off’’ was worth one point and a ‘‘knockout’’ — which meant the foe, according to Tatum’s book, They Call Me Assassin, had ‘‘to be down for an official injury timeout, and he had to be helped off the field’’ — was worth two points.

Tatum, you’ll recall, paralyzed New England Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley on a hit, and I can guarantee you he was praised by some of his coaches and teammates in the film session the next day.

Tatum and Stingley died young, and Tatum is considered by NFL fans to be one of those ethical vagaries who makes us shake our heads and say, ‘‘Well, he was just a little over the top.’’

But wasn’t Dick Butkus, too? He’s the revered Hall of Famer who played so fiercely that he often ripped off opponents’ helmets.

We love the violence, but only up to a point. And no one knows where that point is.

Former NFL safety Matt Bowen wrote that he played for Williams when the coach was with the Washington Redskins, and the bounty system went on there, too. Not only that, but Bowen wrote he liked hurting other players.

‘‘I ate it up,’’ he wrote.

It’s odd, but we even have moral codes in war. You can kill a man — many men — but only in a certain way. Napalm is fine, for instance, but mustard gas isn’t.

Thus, the Marines caught on video urinating on dead Taliban insurgents were wrong. They went too far. Even violent death, we have determined in our struggling way, has to be made dignified — a bizarre concept — so we can approve of it and move on.

Football isn’t much different in that we want the nastiness to be ‘‘clean’’ and ‘‘fun.’’

Ultimately, though, the players who buy into a dehumanizing bounty system have only themselves to blame. They might tell us they’re different than we are and have bought into a different system, but that doesn’t mean they have bought themselves out of humanity.

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