In sports or finance, there should be no bonus for harm done

I’m not a huge football fan, but I have been following the bounty scandal that has hit the New Orleans Saints.

The NFL suspended Saints head coach Sean Payton; the team’s general manager, Mickey Loomis; and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams for participating in a pay-for-performance system that gave cash awards to players who hit opposing players hard enough to either knock them out of a game or who had to be carted off. The players most heavily involved in the bounty scheme also face potential disciplinary action.

I know football is a rough sport. Players’ careers have ended from hard legal hits. But for players to accept rewards for purposely taking someone out is barbaric in a sport that is already brutal when played fair. Weren’t the players in this scheme paid enough money already?

That’s a rhetorical question of course. Money has driven people to do all kinds of things in and out of sports. It’s part of our culture. We reward disgusting behavior. Look at how Wall Street helped tank the economy. Just look at reality TV. Bad boys, girls, men and women get paid for acting ugly. The uglier the act, the bigger the fame and fortune.

The Saints scandal ought to give us all pause. It should result in some introspection of what people will do for money. The Saints’ bounty system in many ways plays out in other professional worlds where pay-for-performance has resulted in people placing financial gain over doing the right thing. How else would you explain professionals who profited by making home loans to people who they had to know were stretching themselves financially even under the best circumstances?

I’ve seen monthly mortgage payments that took up 50 percent, 60 percent and even 70 percent of the person’s net pay. Who in good conscience would approve a loan like that? You might argue that the borrowers should have known better.

OK, then why should the NFL punish the Saints coaches and players? Isn’t that the nature of the game of football, to hit hard enough to wipe out your opponent?

And yet the NFL has rules against malicious and unnecessary roughness. In 2009 and 2011, the Saints were one of the top five teams in unnecessary roughness penalties, the NFL said. There was a culture in that team that said playing nasty was preferred.

Players were paid $1,500 for knocking an opponent from a game and $1,000 for a hit that led to an opposing player being helped off the field, according to the NFL. However small the amounts of the bounties in comparison to salaries, money was still the motivator. Make it to championship games and there’s more money. Saints players received $83,000 bonuses for winning Super Bowl XLIV. Players primarily funded the bounty program.

“We are all accountable and responsible for player health and safety and the integrity of the game,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said. “We will not tolerate conduct or a culture that undermines those priorities.”

How many of us work for companies that have a culture of nastiness or caveat emptor (let the buyer beware)? Has that culture corrupted you?

Greg Smith, a former executive director at Goldman Sachs, said he resigned because he had had enough of the money-is-everything culture. He wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times claiming people got ahead by putting the interest of the company ahead of their clients and doing whatever brought the biggest profit to Sachs: “It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off. … I don’t know of any illegal behavior, but will people push the envelope and pitch lucrative and complicated products to clients even if they are not the simplest investments or the ones most directly aligned with the client’s goals? Absolutely. Every day, in fact.”

In recent years the Federal Trade Commission has been cracking down on various industries as part of the agency’s push to identify and address fraud and deceptive practices that particularly target people who are financially distressed.

“Weed out the morally bankrupt people, no matter how much money they make for the firm,” Smith said.

Or how much they make for your company or team.

NFL players know when they play football they are going to be hit, but they shouldn’t be subject to gratuitous violence. In and out of sports, we should expect people to play fair, and if someone is hurt, it shouldn’t be intentional. If it is, the perpetrators deserve to be thrown out of the game.

Michelle Singletary: singletarym@washpost.com.

Washington Post Writers Group

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