I apologize in advance for the length of this post. This is a complicated issue, with a lot of factors at play, and I don’t think everyone is considering them all when they talk about it, so I’m going to attempt it. I’ll try to keep the read as interesting as possible as I go, even though I’m doing this more for my own sanity than for any of yours. I really just need to get some of these thoughts out of my head and on paper (or what passes for it in our digital age). Hopefully, it’ll be a cathartic experience for all of us, and not just myself. I also hope to maybe provide some ammunition to the folks that seem to just be outraged out of blind loyalty to the organization, as well as temper some of the outrage stemming from the people that think Goodell’s punishment was completely justified. More than anything, I want to explain how I ultimately arrived at the conclusion that the punishment was overly-harsh when my initial, knee-jerk reaction to all the bounty news was, “Fire ‘em all.”
Please keep in mind that all this is being considered with the expectation of additional fines and suspensions being handed down to players in the future.
Let’s talk about precedent for a moment. Fans and media keep throwing out the word when they talk about the punishments, but I don’t think enough emphasis is being put on it. In the criminal justice system, a long standing framework for crime and punishment that has been debated and tinkered with for hundreds of years, precedent is a pretty big deal. It offers a guideline for judges, juries, and executioners to go by. Perhaps since Goodell functions as all three, precedent should be three times as important in the venue of the NFL. Once a ruling or punishment has been handed down once, it’s expected that future rulings line up in a similar manner behind it like so many lemmings, unless extreme or extenuating circumstances dictate otherwise.
Bounty programs are nothing new. Not even remotely. I would like to go ahead and point out now that just because they were widely used elsewhere in absolutely no way makes them any more acceptable or less deplorable. Pointing out this fact is not meant to be an excuse or a justification of any sort, so don’t tangle or twist it. It’s simply a point that needs to be considered when painting the overall picture of precedent. Even if half the population started committing murder on a regular basis, I think we would still all be in agreement that murder is pretty much not cool at all. Bounties are only cool when they involve carbonite or are taken out in Hawaii and enforced by a greasy, mullet-head. The latter of those two is arguable.
After Super Bowl XX, it’s widely believed that some seriously dirty bounties came into play. Perhaps most famously, though, bounty talk was thrown around during the tenure of Buddy Ryan, so much so that a game between his Eagles and the Cowboys in 1989 became known as the "Bounty Bowl." People ate this stuff up with a fork and spoon at the time. It was a long time ago, under a different Commissioner, but everyone that wasn’t directly involved considered it much ado about nothing, and certainly there was no talk of investigations or punishments. We’ve come a long way, baby. The Saints coaches apparently thought the bounty system was no big deal, foolishly not realizing that the NFL climate has changed a lot in the new millennium. It’s also worth noting that Buddy Ryan became a sort of mentor to a young Gregg Williams when they both spent time with the Oilers in the early 90s.
More recently, the Packers were found to be guilty of bounty rule violations in 2007. Now, I’m not a complete idiot (feel free to call me a partial idiot, that I can accept). I realize what the Packers did was a far cry from what the Saints did. Paying some linemen for keeping opposing players under yardage milestones seems completely harmless compared to paying players for knocking opponents the eff out, Deebo syle. My point here is that they violated the same rule and absolutely nothing was done about it. Precedent. While not nearly as extreme in size and scope, the bounty rule was broken under the current Commissioner’s watch, and it was shrugged off as no big deal. Even Goodell has said in recent interviews that pay for performance plans should not be tolerated because they will likely inevitably lead to bounties. However, this does bring us to the first two places where the Saints crapped the bed and started rolling around in it. The Saints institutionalized the bounty rule violations by having their coaches endorse and encourage it. The Packers also stopped when it came to light, and admitted wrongdoing. The Saints? Yeah, not so much. They knew Goodell had sicked the dogs on them. They were told by Benson to stop it. They kept going. In this era of scrutiny on player safety (more on that later), they arrogantly decided they could get away with it, or that the Commish was a paper tiger and they really didn’t care. Turned out they had the tiger by the tail, and that the mofo had claws like a crack-addled velociraptor. Precedent be damned.
Enough with the history lesson. Let’s move on to the effects of the crime in question. The two victims everyone seems to want to point to aren’t doing a very good job of playing their roles. Favre said he knew it was happening in the 2009 NFC Championship, but shrugged it off and said "he’s not pissed." He even went so far as to say Gregg Williams is a "great coach." The only person that came out and complained (aside from Vikings fans), was then head coach Brad Childress. Considering Childress’ own players didn’t respect his opinion, I saw no reason for anyone else to either. Now Favre is no beacon of morality, since he can’t seem to keep his wang in his Wranglers, but our next victim was Tim Tebow before Tim Tebow was Tim Tebow (boom; met this week’s quota for every story mentioning Tebow by name at least three times). Ladies and gents, guys and dolls, I present to you Kurt Warner. Warner said he was "disappointed" but not surprised. It’s hard not to notice his complete lack of outrage. "I think that’s part of the game, part of the mindset." Once again, let me reiterate that this in no way makes things okay or acceptable. I just want to point out that actual football players, the guys on the field, the guys that take these hits, don’t view this whole mess the same way we regular folks do, up on our high horses made out of rainbows and morality, and it pours a big bucket of ice water on the fires of outrage.
Now, Goodell has said that he has a list of players that had bounties put on them, and that he has looked at game tape and seen hits that line up with these bounties that have knocked players out of games. I want to see these names and the hits. Not because I doubt it happened, or that I doubt they had bounties on them, but because I want to see if the hits were flagged as illegal. If they weren’t, guess what? That’s on you and the officials, my man. In what first sounds like a really lame excuse, players have said they did try to knock folks out of games, but they wanted to do it within the rules. If they succeeded in that, I think we need to refocus some of the blame. Is it really that different than guys coming out and unabashedly saying they targeted Tony Romo’s hurt ribs last year? I’m looking at you, DeAngelo Hall. Is it underhanded and douchey? Yes, yes it is. Is it illegal? Nope. This is where we point out that since 2009, while all this nonsense was taking place, the Saints never lead the league in penalties per game, penalty yards per game, yards per penalty, or penalties per play. They never even cracked the top five in any of those categories. While all these atrocious bounty hits were taking place, they didn’t show up in the box score or in the eyes of the refs. These bounty hits were apparently very rarely of the flagrant or late variety. I suppose I should point out the fact that our defenses still pretty much sucked, making it all the more unfathomably moronic that the Saints continued to promote a system that was illegal, mean-spirited, and apparently entirely ineffective.
Players have also brought up the point that it doesn’t make financial sense to make illegal hits to earn what amounts to their office pool. While I don’t for one second think that most NFL players are math geniuses, they know their cheddar, and it doesn’t take a master’s degree to figure out that laying an illegal hit to earn a few hundred dollars (or even $10,000) when it’s going to cost you a $50,000 isn’t a sound business model. Would guys that are encouraged to act like barbarians towards one another and are driven by testosterone do it anyway to earn some accolades from their teammates and let everyone admire how big their balls are? Yeah, of course they would. But not to the point where it was consistently screwing with their livelihood. You know, unless you’re James Harrison. Or James Harrison. Or James Harrison. A note on the McCoy hit: it’s the only one he got suspended for, and it was for one game. Consistently vomiting all over the idea of player safety earned him a one-game suspension. Pesky precedent.
Let’s talk about the integrity of the game. Let’s talk about "protecting the shield." Mike Vick was out of the league for two years due to a prison sentence and an "indefinite" suspension handed out by Goodell. Two years gone for becoming a federal felon and running a criminal enterprise that revolved around brutal animal cruelty and gambling. Everyone loves a good comeback story though, yeah? Payton gets a year for bounties. Ben Roethlisberger was accused of sexual assault in 2006 and again in 2008. Neither incident resulted in charges, but the Commish felt the need to step in on the second and handed out a six game suspension that was later reduced to four games. Perhaps Payton should’ve paid his players to violently jack off opponents without their consent instead. Older incidents (and some not necessarily under Goodell) include Marvin Harrison allegedly discharging a firearm at someone, Ray Lewis being implicated in a murder, Donte Stallworth running over and killing a man with his car, Larry Johnson consistently beating the hell out of his girlfriends, Plaxico breaking gun laws in New York and almost shooting off his own penis, Pacman Jones being found in da club wreaking havoc in between rain-making sessions, Vince Young punching bouncers who didn’t like the Longhorns, and on and on and on. The Patriots were fined a total of $750,000 ($250,000 from the team, and $500,000 for their head coach Bill Belichick), and stripped of a first round draft pick after being caught taping an opposing team’s signals. You know, cheating to gain a competitive advantage. Integrity indeed. In the worst light, what the Saints did could be considered on the field assault (which was rarely flagged as illegal by League officials) for pay, in a sport where guys consistently assault one another within the rules on every play. But it warrants suspensions on par or exceeding all the above offenses. Glad we’re preserving the integrity of the game and making a moral stand.
But it’s all about player safety, right? Goodell is the champion of player safety. Or so he’d have us believe. During the first three years of Goodell’s tenure (and for more than a decade before he came to power), the NFL’s concussion committee flat out denied that concussions from football had lasting effects on player health, ignoring basically every medical professional on the face of the planet. They didn’t want to leave themselves open to lawsuits from former players and, you know, lose money. Former players sued anyway. It wasn’t until fan outrage mounted and current players and the Player’s Association began making some serious noise that the NFL changed their stance. They did so as a public relations move, to appease current players in the new CBA, and to avoid future lawsuits. They reversed course on player safety because it became more profitable to embrace it than to fight it. Not because they had a moral obligation to, or to protect the integrity of the frigging game. Goodell continues to push for an 18 game regular season , despite fan resistance and player complaints that it further endangers their safety. Player safety is very important. Until you weigh it against the "bounty" you’d gain from bigger television contracts.
You guys stopped reading ages ago and skipped down to the comments already, so let’s sum it up. The Saints players, coaches, and executives involved in this are idiots. They not only violated the spirit of the bounty rule, they pissed all over the rulebook, and they did it a lot more than once. They repeatedly ignored warnings. They lied to and misled the most heavy-handed Commissioner in the history of the NFL who’s made player safety his soapbox issue. They put evidence on paper. They let some random dude who has been convicted of fraud twice in the past wander around their clubhouse and rub his stink on everything. They were too arrogant to think they’d get caught, or too stupid to realize the consequences would be extreme. They have nobody to blame but themselves. I don’t think otherwise, and I make no excuses for them. There really is no excuse for being this dumb. Especially when you consider that Goodell probably had enough of their antics when he dealt with the Vicodin scandal, which he more or less swept under the rug (he must watch House). With all that said, Goodell laid down a punishment that looks like it was more about him proving a point about his power than it was about proving a point about player safety. It looks like a tantrum because he was lied to. Justifying an unprecedented suspension for Payton for things he didn’t do as opposed to what he did do seems a little backwards and vindictive. It also seems to go against his overall job, because it severely damages competitive balance for one of the teams in the league (when the competitive advantage gained from what they did was extremely minimal, if it even existed at all) and hurts the product on the field. But guess what? The Commish is well within his power here. Maybe he has too much power, but the NFL isn’t a democracy designed around checks and balances. The King can do as he likes. It’s not like we, or the Saints, didn’t know this, and the team put itself here. Not the Commissioner. What really sucks is how hard this hits us, the fans. And I really don’t think Goodell took the massive collateral damage that this punishment inflicts on us into his decision at all. What could’ve been with those draft picks? We’ll never know what we’re missing, but it sure does suck to think we may’ve just lost two future superstars for years to come. But will we survive? Yep. Will we do well this year? Quite possibly. We have an uphill battle, but if we can give Brees some damn cash (my girl thinks we should take the 8 million dollars we're not having to pay Payton and throw it at Brees: I agree) and convince him to come save our asses again, we have a decent shot at it. He’ll get the boys ready. Carmichael proved his play calling ability last year filling in for Payton, and Spags has years of experience as a head coach. A team that had nothing else to prove now does again. The underdog thing worked out pretty okay back in 2009, yeah? You don’t have to like this, but you do have to accept it. Let’s move on, folks. Let’s just go. We got this.