Incentive pause

Rewards that teams offer for player performance aren't effective

Originally Published: September 24, 2012
By Peter Keating | ESPN The Magazine
WoodleyGeorge Gojkovich/Getty ImagesIn April, Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley questioned the line between bonuses and bounties.

BOUNTYGATE has always been about more than crime and punishment, guilt and innocence. It's also about a question that's been lurking beneath the entire affair, which Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley nailed back in April. "You get a certain amount of sacks, you get an extra bonus -- is that considered a bounty?" he asked. "Is that putting that much more pressure to go out there and want to hit a quarterback because you know you have a $100,000 bonus coming if you do?"

Woodley's point forces us to confront two uncomfortable truths. The first: Leagues specify in great detail the kinds of contract provisions they will and won't allow, but "incentive clauses" are really just bonuses for acts they like, and "bounties" are bonuses for acts they don't like. The second and bigger truth: No matter what you call them, these rewards are doomed to be ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst.

Peter Keating is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, where he covers investigative and statistical subjects. He started writing "The Biz," a column looking at sports business from the fan's point of view, in 1999. He also coordinates the Magazine's annual "Ultimate Standings" project, which ranks all pro franchises according to how much they give back to fans. His work on concussions in football has earned awards from the Deadline Club, the New York Press Club and the Center for the Study of Sport in Society.