Summer 2024

Face-Off -- Bountygate: Pay for performance or pay to injure?


Bountygate,’ the great conspiracy? The NFL’s “Bountygate” scandal, on the surface, seems like a justification to an exaggerated characterization of reality. A pay-for-performance-system sinisterly was distorted as a pay-to-injure-scheme resulting in punishments, leaving numerous New Orleans Saints’ players and coaches vilified and personified as a league example to deter any future-would-be-similar-incentive programs.

Although the players’ contracts forbid any kind of non-contract bonuses for on-field incentives offered by the team/organization (a very black and white mandate); it doesn’t, however, prohibit their teammates from monetarily rewarding positive performance (more of a grayish area).

Pundits of this pay-for-performance type want to make it something it’s not—forcing it as some ethical or spiritual issue. I understand the reasoning players’ contracts prohibit non-contract bonuses—it’s an attempt to fend off opening Pandora’s Box to point shaving, game fixing, gambling, injuries, etc. I realize that. However, I parallel this pay-for-performance-motivation with a parent offering their kids an increased allowance for a semester’s worth of good grades—there isn’t anything “morally” wrong with this gesture whatsoever. Sure there should be an intrinsic desire on the kids’ part to naturally aspire and achieve good grades, but the act in itself is nothing more than common place conditional programming.

This incentivized “rewarding” theory exists in all facets of life: vacation packages, commission checks, theater and game tickets, gym memberships, vehicle reimbursements, phone allowances, etc.—it is simply a Human Resource program. In business, these incentive-based programs increase company profits, employee morale, and help improve customer retention. They are all a tangible, personalized thank you to workers for going above the call of duty in helping contribute to the overall team goal of winning—not winning at all costs, but simply winning within the parameters of the game.

My view is that the collective bargaining agreement should be rewritten to encompass such additional payments—it further cultivates the team-first mentality by honoring such selfless stats as: taking a charge on the basketball court, taking a hit-by-pitch on the diamond, and taking a sack to save yardage…this is both honoring and embodying the game the way it was meant to be played.

As a Christian I appreciate the character building attributes that athletics facilitate; competition as a whole sifts the weak from the strong and the inferior from the superior, ultimately, determining one winner and one loser.

Though some argue pay-for-performance takes away from sports, I feel it’s merely a healthy formula to help promote the rising of the cream to the top.

By Matt Dunn

Matt Dunn is a freelance writer specializing in sports management—contributing to countless blogs, articles, and periodicals. Additionally, he serves as an associate staff member with Athletes in Action. Contact:


The “Bountygate” scandal, on the surface, seems morally repugnant, since the NFL rules forbid any kind of non-contract bonuses for on-field performances against an opponent or team. However, when examined beyond the formal logic of the rules, this scandal presents a challenge to our God-given dignity and God’s call to be a peaceable people, bedrock convictions in Christian Ethics 101.

Basic Convictions: Player Dignity and Peace

Just as Wall-Street often chooses a cost-benefit ethic, “Bountygate” put profits and rewards before player dignity and the corresponding rights of safety and health. Payouts of this kind motivate and determine what in-game acts are good. Debilitating hits are esteemed as praiseworthy and even obligate players who seek to satisfy this reward scheme. Instead of acting in a manner consonant with sports’ ideals, namely: skill, honesty, justice and responsibility, the craft of playing football is threatened by extrinsic rewards and eroded by selfish pursuits to injure at any cost. What is truly good is incompatible with these economic pursuits to pay-for-pain. True excellence takes a seat on the bench, when individuals are dominated by such narrow incentives to play. In short, the perpetrators’ narcissistic interests are at variance with sport ideals themselves and the image of God, thus disregarding the equal dignity of other players.

For Christian ethics, the Gospel bids us to be part of a new order of reconciliation and peace. When purposeful pain is inflicted to take others out, vice is instilled—antagonizing other players and begetting retaliation—which imperils peace. Result: alienation and hostility. The gospel in sports chooses means that embrace, not exclude, other players. Others are necessary for the contest even to exist.

How far is too far? If an action diminishes or marginalizes player dignity, then our actions are morally blameworthy. It may be argued that New Orleans Saints player Jonathan Vilma’s ethic was sacrificial—for the good of the team, city and fans—but this ignores others’ welfare, which for Christians our actions must lovingly respect that our neighbors (literally across the line in football) matter, period. Jesus’ ethic incarnates patterns of peace, building covenant community and enhancing others’ God-given worth.

“Bountygate” subtracts from others’ worth and erodes the necessary communal bonds for sports to flourish. If the goal is to obtain a win or profit by inflicting harm, then this objective is blind to whether the means are unethical or not.

What is most disturbing about this event is that it is frequently predicated on the perception that sports are war and the opponent is our enemy, so we do whatever it takes to win.

When applied to sports, what is right becomes an exclusive focus on the specialized task of spectacular, bone crushing hits to eliminate others, foreign to Jesus’ mission of rejecting violence.

By John White

John White is the Harold and Dottie Riley Assistant Professor of Practical Theology and Director of the Sports Chaplaincy/Ministry Program at Baylor University. White served for 17 years with Athletes in Action before completing his Ph.D. from The University of Edinburgh (U.K.) in Theological Ethics. Contact: