Competition brings out the best - and sometimes the worst - in all of us. Whether you're watching games on the couch, screaming "KILL HIM!" or just silently wishing it, or actually in the heat of game action, head on a swivel, looking out for the next big hit, the thrill of competition brings our animal instincts to the fore. The games we watch and the games we play tap directly into the lizard-like cortex at the top of your brainstem that assigns friends and enemies, that sends "fight" or "flee" signals throughout your nervous system.
That people get paid money to satisfy our need as fans for these vicarious thrills is nothing new. We aren't Aztecs or Romans, putting on games with literal lives at stake. We use money and/or glory as stakes instead. But the games do provoke a bloodlust that sometimes gets dangerously close to crossing the line. Sometimes the game's very flirtation with that line - having a player like Ray Lewis or James Harrison put the fear of God in us with every hit, for example - is what compels us to watch.
Of course, there's a strongly running counter-current, a higher-brain response to the bloodlust, that we term "sportsmanship." The genetic impulse that drives Warren Sapp to beat whatever man stood in front of him and drive the quarterback into the ground gets switched off when the whistle blows, and a second impulse makes Sapp smile broadly and help the poor bastard up. It's all in the game, and we all have our lives to lead when the game is over.
The balance between those two impulses, the line between the emotion and violence of the game and the respect we're supposed to feel for fellow man or fellow competitor, is a hazy one. Once that line is crossed, though, everyone knows it. A decades-old rivalry between cities gets thrown into upheaval when a San Francisco fan is brutally beaten by a Los Angeles fan outside the stadium. A whole stadium gets hushed and remorseful when a clean hit ends up breaking the neck of a high school hockey player.
Other times, that line is hazy, as in the "bounty" program run by Gregg Williams in New Orleans and Washington (and elsewhere?) that is now under heavy scrutiny by the NFL. Reportedly, defensive players assigned "price tags" or rewards associated with big hits, with bonuses associated if that hit ended up sending the player to the sideline.
Put in plain english like that, it sounds a step or so away from contract murder. If there was a football hell, fans of Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, or Kurt Warner - all players that may have taken career-altering hits as part of this bounty program - would certainly be wishing Williams toward it. But Matt Bowen, one of his former players, paints a different picture of the bounty program.