What is being referred to as “Bounty-gate” by some has many in football, media and the general population choosing sides. Is it right, ethical or legal to establish a system where players can “earn” money for sending another player to the locker room, or worse yet, an early retirement? The veil has been lifted on many NFL teams who have such pay-for-performance systems in place. While the Washington Redskins’ and New Orleans Saints’ “pay for performance” system will no doubt cause writers, pundits and others in and out of sports to condemn performance pay, the fact is that the reinforcement and reward system of defensive coach Gregg Williams was very successful. It caused an increase in injuries to players opposing these two teams.
While Williams saw the system as rewarding rugged play, it is the definition of “rugged play” that is the problem, not the reinforcement and reward system he devised. When Williams was with the Saints, players reported that they were paid $1,500 for a “knockout” hit and $1,000 if an opponent was carted off the field. This is just another example of “you get more of what you reinforce.” Tom Jackson, former NFL player, said that giving a player money to injure another player “crosses the line.”
I have no problem with giving social or even financial reinforcement and reward for a good block, tackle, catch or any number of actions that are within the rules and done with good sportsmanship. These are the kinds of consequences that cause players to excel. However, if they are done for the wrong behaviors, they can cause a great deal of harm. The same can be true for business.
While these events cause one to wonder about Williams’ values and ethics and whether he should even coach in the league (in a poll by USA TODAY most people voting think he should be banned from the NFL for life), there is a more serious concern for me. It is the head coaches, the bosses of the assistant coach. While all the attention is on Williams, the head coaches of the Saints, Redskins, Titans, etc. had to know it was going on. If they didn’t know, they should be replaced. But how could they not have known?
In the final analysis, the head coaches and general managers, if they knew of the practice, are the ones who should be held accountable. As Williams himself would say, the snake can’t live without a head. At a minimum the head coaches are complicit in his system just by allowing it to exist. They could have taken action to stop it and helped the coach find other ways to reinforce and reward excellent defensive play. However, it is too late to help him, and apologies, in my opinion, will change little. I think Williams’ days are probably over in the NFL, but even if they are, the concern still lingers that the snake may come back to life in another form.
Positive reinforcement is a powerful force for changing human behavior, but is like nuclear power. It can be used for good or evil. Until it is better understood by coaches, owners and anyone in a management or leadership position, ethical and judgmental problems will continue to plague the organizations. Whenever there is intense competition in sport or business, unless leaders are knowledgeable of the laws of human behavior and vigilant in observing how reinforcement is used, these problems will continue to occur for even the most well-meaning leaders.