Steve Chapman

But the advance of civilization, or something, has brought a diminished tolerance for wanton destruction. Pitchers are no longer allowed to bounce baseballs off of hitters' heads, and the National Hockey League has taken steps to prevent concussions. Even football fans know the difference between a hard tackle and aggravated assault.

Under the relentless spotlight that is focused on major sports, standards are bound to become tighter than in the old days. After all, we no longer blithely accept child labor or deadly mine disasters or rivers that catch fire from pollution.

If the NFL fails to take vigorous action to stamp out bounties, it runs the risk of alienating fans and steering parents toward soccer and volleyball. Anyone who thinks strict rules will produce a sissy game is welcome to test the thesis by getting between Ray Lewis and a running back.

Fortunately, bounties shouldn't be hard to banish. Combating steroid use requires a comprehensive and sophisticated testing regime because many athletes fear they need performance enhancers just to stay in the game. Getting a bounty is not so enticing because it has no career payoff. Players and coaches can be cured through penalties that greatly exceed the rewards.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell merely has to make a few conspicuous examples. Ban offenders for a season, levy six-figure fines, strip teams of draft picks and voila, no one will think $1,000 is worth the risk. The NFL could also offer handsome bounties of its own to anonymous tipsters.

Any rule can be circumvented, of course, and proving a scheme of this sort may be hard. But the NFL doesn't need to be infallible in detecting such misconduct. It only needs to instill in potential cheaters a significant fear they'll be caught -- and the certainty that if they are, they'll pay a high price.

The NFL has a penalty called "unnecessary roughness." Goodell now has to prove it's not an oxymoron.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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