The NFL and the LOAC (Following Illegal Orders)

by Travis Normand

Let me start by saying that this is an unusual post in that it has as much to do with football (NFL) as it does the LOAC.

While driving to work today, I was listening to a local sports radio station. One of the shows hosts, Nick Wright, brought up for discussion some comments that were apparently made the day before by Ted Johnson concerning “following orders in the NFL.”  While I can’t seem to find Ted Johnson’s comments, I did find the following quote from the shows website. It was found on the page that  displays the topics to be discussed during a particular show (and at what time).

 8:45 am – What do you make of what Ted Johnson said yesterday about following orders in the NFL?


While searching for Ted Johnson’s comments, I found a couple of articles on the subject of “following orders” as a defense in relation to the New Orleans’ Saints (NFL) bounty program/scandal.  The following is from an article written by Mike Florio on July 7, 2012:

Lost at times in the analysis of the Saints alleged bounty program is the rigid, almost military hierarchy that brings structure to the inherent chaos of football.

Coaches give orders, and players follow orders.

In this case, with former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams implementing a system that he reportedly used in at least two of the other cities where he coached, what options did his players have?  And so, at the June 18 appeal hearing, NFLPA outside counsel Jeffrey Kessler argued that the players “simply followed what their supervisors directed them to do.”


The shows hosts went on to discuss the subject of how NFL players either follow the orders of their coaches or find themselves “blackballed” within the league.  The hosts discussed the culpability of the players (who claim to be simply following orders) in relation to the coaches who were actually giving the orders.  In referencing other comments (i.e. Ted Johnson) they discussed the idea of players being less culpable in regards to the bounty program due to the fact that they were just following orders.

Anyone familiar with the LOAC knows that a soldier’s excuse of “I was simply following orders” is not a defense to a crime.  In other words, a member of the military typically must follow the orders of a superior officer or face the consequences.  On the other hand, if a commanding officer issues an illegal order, the soldier receiving that order has a duty to not follow it.  If the soldier chooses to follow the illegal order, then the soldier is just as culpable for the resulting harm caused.  Further, “I was just following orders” is not a defense to the crime they have committed.  Fair or not, that is the law.

To understand the difference between an illegal and legal order, without turning this into a course on the LOAC, I will over simplify the explanation here.  In its simplest form, a commanding officer who orders his troops to engage an opposing army on the battlefield, is giving a legal order.  An example of this would be a commander ordering his troops to engage in a battle that is before them on the battlefield.  However, an illegal order would be this same officer ordering his troops to attack a small village that he knew had no army, no defenses, that posed no threat, was full of only civilians, and gave him no military advantage of any kind.

In terms of the NFL, I would imagine an illegal order would be for a coach to direct a player to commit an act that was against the rules of the game, especially when the act is aimed at purposefully causing injury to an opposing player.  A legal order would be one that was within the rules of the game, was for the purpose of winning the game, and advancing your teams strategic goals.

Under this framework, you can see that something such as a bounty program would easily be considered an illegal order.  Therefore, if the world of NFL football is so similar to the military, I would expect the rules to be somewhat similar as well.  In other words, when a coach issued the (illegal) order to hit another player for the purpose of causing injury, the player receiving the order had a duty to not follow that order (regardless of the consequences for doing so).

Following an illegal order puts the player in as culpable a situation as the coach and/or the NFL itself.

I am not in favor of drawing parallels between the military and athletes (at least not to this extreme), but if you are going to draw such a comparison and then try to use “I was just following orders” as a defense, you need to know what you are talking about.  After all, if the body that adjudicates the issue buys into the theory that  “the NFL is a lot like the military,” then they should reject your defense of “following orders” as insufficient.

Read more on this topic here:  Dave Gilbert posted a similar opinion on July 8, 2012 [Saints Players Were Just Following Orders? That’s No Excuse –].  While his comments do not include any reference to the LOAC, his views seem to be fairly in-line with what I have said here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s