I'm sure the NFL thinks of this sort of punishment as sending a clear message to its teams: Don't promote or engage in unethical or unsportsmanlike acts that put the health and safety of other players at risk... or else the punishment will be severe. Will this severe punishment really deter future bounty systems? Or ensure greater health and safety of NFL players? Based on my understanding of psychology principles, I'm not convinced this penalty will do anything more than torpedo the 2012 season of one NFL franchise.
Why don't penalties directed at individuals solve ethical problems? For the answer, I turn to the theory of bounded ethicality developed by Max Bazerman, Professor of Negotiation, Organizations, and Markets at Harvard Business School. Bounded ethicality is a simple idea: Most of the unethical practices that people engage in are not due to their evil or immoral nature, rather, unethical acts are simply potentiated by features of the social or organizational context in which individuals reside (Chugh, Bazerman, & Banaji, 2005). In short, social contexts create conditions that make unethical behaviors more palatable and more frequent.
What do I mean by features of the social or organizational context that enhance unethical behavior? Well, certain features of the context can in some ways make unethical acts seem okay. For example, in one study, if an unethical action causes no harm, it is viewed as more ethical than the same action that causes harm (e.g., two people shoot a gun with an intent to kill, the one who actually is successful at hitting their target is perceived as more immoral; Chugh et al., 2005). In another example, when a negotiation is framed in terms of losses (versus gains) negotiators tend to behave more unethically. For instance, in one study, when the chances of purchasing a firm were framed in terms of losses (75% chance of losing the firm) versus gains (25% chance of acquiring it) were more likely to misrepresent facts during the negotiation, and to make false promises during the negotiation (Kern & Chugh, 2009). These unethical behaviors are being enhanced by the social context, and not by contrast, by some pathological personality disorder of the negotiators.
Turning back to football, it appears that the NFL is suggesting that the Saints' bounty system is one of the primary factors that places player safety at risk in the NFL. I'm skeptical of this reasoning: The game of football is inherently violent, the players are enormous and powerful, and the helmet is used as much as a weapon as it is a protective device. A quick perusal of concussion statistics reveals 167 reported concussions over the course of the 2010 NFL season, with many more likely going unreported. In short, bounty or no bounty, players run a high risk of head injury when playing football, and cracking down on teams who may encourage hits-that-injure, or individual players who deliver big hits (e.g., fining James Harrison $125,000) seems to be a silly response. Don't hate the player, hate the game. The game rewards violence, and as long as fans want to see players get "Jacked Up" I think we can expect the same violent game in the future.
Do you want the NFL to change its rules so that players are better protected? Or would you rather leave the game as it is? Tell us in the comments!
Kern, M., & Chugh, D. (2009). Bounded Ethicality: The Perils of Loss Framing Psychological Science, 20 (3), 378-384 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02296.x