Football is a violent game. It is played along a fine line that separates fierce-but-fair competition from thuggery. That line is crossed when players are rewarded for hurting opponents or bounties are placed on other teams' stars.
At least four National Football League teams are linked to a scandal in which bounties were paid for big hits on opposing players. The common denominator is coach Gregg Williams. His two-decade NFL coaching career has included stints with the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans, Buffalo Bills, Washington Redskins, and New Orleans Saints.
The NFL says it is committed to improving player safety, especially reducing concussions. To prove it, league officials must impose harsh penalties on Mr. Williams, Saints head coach Sean Payton, team general manager Mickey Loomis, and the Saints organization. Penalties could include fines, suspensions, and the loss of draft choices.
Mr. Williams admitted his role in the bounty scheme when he was the Saints' defensive coordinator for three years beginning in 2009. But he isn't alone, and money doesn't have to be involved. Current and former NFL players say that "cart-off" and "knockout" hits, with or without a cash payment, are common around the league.
And the attitude, even among targets of big hits, often is: So what? That's football. That's not a surprise. In football, very large people are paid huge sums of money to do violence to each other. Whichever team does it better usually wins.
Fans love the testosterone-driven excitement. Players' egos are fed by fat paychecks and adoring fans. Neither group is in the best position to decide what is acceptable and unacceptable violence.
So it is up to NFL officials. League Commissioner Roger Goodell has declared player safety a top concern. A strong response to the bounty scandal would show that the concern is sincere, not prompted by potential lawsuits by former players who claim that the league knew for decades how damaging concussions were, but hid its data from players.
It is impossible to know what is in a player's mind as he hits an opponent. There will always be thugs in football pads whose game is to inflict pain and injury. And too often, other players accept gratuitous violence as part of the game.
The only way to change that culture is to draw a clear line that separates thugs from athletes who play hard but clean. That begins with zero tolerance of coaches and other team officials who pay players intentionally to hurt members of the other team.
Football is dangerous enough. There's no need to put a price on anyone's head.