An interesting drama is now playing out on the National Football League stage. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell played the role of judge and jury on March 21. That several members of the New Orleans Saints coaching staff and front office, as well as about two dozen players, were guilty of running a “pay for mayhem” scheme between 2009 and 2011 has not been in doubt for two weeks. Saints officials and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams had all admitted to the scheme. But the official verdict of guilty was handed down by Commissioner Goodell—a one man jury. Goodell then took on the role of sentencing judge and handed out draconian punishments.
There is no need to repeat the complete list of punishments announced on the 21st. The most talked about are the 1-year suspension without pay of Coach Sean Payton and the “banishment” of Williams from the NFL. His status with the league will be reviewed after the 2012 season. This means that his current employer, the St. Louis Rams, will now be looking for a new defensive coordinator.
In addition, Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis will be suspended for the first eight games of the 2012 season. Payton’s suspension takes effect April 1, three weeks prior to this year’s draft. The Saints also are being docked draft choices and face other penalties. The players involved await their day in front of the hanging judge. Goodell announced that league officials were continuing to investigate player involvement and would consult with the players’ union before any penalties against players are announced.
At this point, everyone knows that eventually a number of current Saints players will be fined and/or suspended. The entire 2012 season outlook for the team that won the Super Bowl after the 2009 season has now been cast into considerable disarray.
The Saints had been discussing a new multi-year contract with their star quarterback, Drew Brees. Those talks had not been productive and two weeks ago the Saints gave the “franchise player” tag to Brees for the 2012 season. Under the collective bargaining agreement, teams can give this designation to one player each season. That player is then bound to the team for the next season at a salary to be determined by a scale comparing the player to other top players at that position.
Brees’ contract is set to expire after the 2012 season. He was already reportedly unhappy with being given the franchise player designation. With this week’s bad news, many believe that he will leave for better opportunities to win after the upcoming season. If Brees leaves, then several other key players could likely follow suit and the Saints roster would be decimated.
Goodell’s announcement came AFTER the deadline for Saints season ticket holders to renew their tickets for 2012. Fans are already saying that they feel used by having committed to pay thousands of dollars for tickets to watch a team that suddenly may be an also ran in the league. Some fans have already started threatening to file lawsuits.
When Saints owner Tom Benson signed Payton to coach the team after the 2005 season, one of Payton’s first moves was to help convince Drew Brees to sign as a free agent. The two of them then became the face of the greatest era in team history. In the past six seasons, the Saints won 67 regular season games; made the playoffs in four of six seasons and won one Super Bowl. The Saints were already tapped as favorites in the NFC South Division for this season.
So now we must assess the mess left by this scandal. Various people have tried to explain away the scheme as just a part of a violent sport. Others have whined that other teams have done the same thing in the past few years (probably so). Still others argue that the scheme was really only a plan to reward players for good play, not for knocking opposing players out of games.
There is an old saying that roughly goes: “If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.” Let’s dispense with rationalizations. Saints players put money in a pool administered by their defensive coordinator. Rewards were paid for hits that knocked players out or that caused them to be carted off of a field on a stretcher. It was a head hunting scheme, at the very least one that was carried on with no regard for the injuries other players might suffer.
The NFL is currently facing almost 70 lawsuits filed against clubs, individuals and the league over allegations that the league knew about the dangers of hard blows to the heads of players for years and did little or nothing to warn or protect players. Now the league finds itself dealing with a situation where at least one team had players actually being paid to hurt other players. Imagine how much damage this type of information could do in front of juries in trials?
The scheme, even if it were not malevolent in its consequences, still violated league salary cap rules. It is even conceivable that some zealous prosecutor could seek to bring criminal assault charges against players for intentional behavior that caused injury to another person.
The NFL outlawed the clothes line tackle made famous by Dick “Night Train” Lane in the 1950s and early 1960s. It outlawed the helmet slap made famous by Deacon Jones in the 1960s and 1970s. Blocking below the knees by offensive linemen was outlawed in most situations in the 1980s, as were crack-back blocks. Spearing was outlawed over a decade ago. It is absolutely clear that the league has been trying to limit on field violence for about the past five decades.
Players are much bigger, faster and stronger today than they were in the 1960s. The league has been studying ways to limit the most violent hits for a number of years. Last year, kickoff rules were changed to slow down the charge downfield of players on the kicking team. The league has closely monitored hits to quarterbacks for over 15 years. If anyone thinks that the league is going to do anything other than take a harsh stance against plans to pay players bounties for certain hard hits those people are living in a fantasy world.
There have been reports that Williams ran a similar scheme when he was the defensive coordinator of the Washington Redskins. No one at this point knows for sure how far reaching the current league investigation is. League officials have admitted to having compiled over 50,000 pages of documents to this point.
Is it fair if Payton is banned for an entire year if no players wind up receiving a similar punishment? Probably not. There’s another old saying in the criminal justice system: “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.” Coaches and front office personnel don’t have a union representing them. There is already talk about Payton and others being made scapegoats because the league doesn’t have the legal authority to really punish players who were involved. That may or may not prove true in the end. Let’s not forget, however, that the NFL league office began investigating this situation back in early 2010. Goodell spoke about being lied to by Saints officials when they were questioned about the allegations.
Political scandals have consistently brought home the message that the punishment for a cover up is often worse than for the crime. This is a message brought out again by the situation at Penn State in the fall. It appears that the NFL as a league is willing to sacrifice the Saints franchise to send out the desired message to the rest of the teams.
Stay tuned. This ongoing drama may prove to be better than TV soap operas and may play out like events on Tru TV.
To read a more complete report on this fluid situation, see the article published on March 22 in USA Today. It can be found at http://www.usatoday.com/sports/football/nfl/saints/story/2012-03-21/bounty-program-unprecendented-punishment/53696548/1. The main story includes a video.