It's not often that you hear "counterterrorism" and "football" in the same sentence outside of Tom Clancy novels and Homeland Security paranoia, but in the ongoing avalanche of insanity that is the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal, no topic is out of bounds.
At issue: Sean Payton, once and future head coach of the Saints, who's been suspended for the entire 2012 season for his role in a pay-for-hits scandal uncovered last offseason. The NFL has forbidden Payton from having any contact with his team this year, at the risk of a permanent ban. In specific terms, Payton is "prohibited from direct or indirect communication of any sort with employees of the 32 clubs, including through third parties; and such prohibited communications shall include, but are not limited to, phone or electronic contact."
It's a nice idea in theory, but in practice, how exactly would the NFL keep such a lid on Payton's communications? It's a key question, and as the New York Times' Sam Borden notes, it's a question the New York Giants, the Saints' opponent this weekend, are asking.
"Of course he will get his message to them somehow," says punter Steve Weatherford, one of several Giants who expressed concerns to the Times. "I'm not saying anything about Sean Payton as a person or anything, but I think any coach would do that. It's not like he's just going to sit at home and watch the games and not have any thoughts. His message will be heard."
When head coaches get kicked out of games, their assistants are supposed to take over, but on occasion the head coach can still keep an active hand in the proceedings. One oft-ejected baseball coach would regularly shout directions from his office at the bottom at the dugout stairs. And Bobby Valentine famously once was thrown out of a game but snuck back into the Mets' dugout wearing sunglasses and a fake mustache.
But getting kicked out of a game is one thing. Getting suspended for a season? That completely alters a team dynamic, and you can see why a coach might like to keep his ship from foundering on the rocks in his absence. Without Payton, the Saints are 5-7 and in real danger of missing the playoffs.
If a coach were inspired to communicate with his team, tracking him would be virtually impossible without starting to tread on his civil rights. The Times quotes Rick Nelson, a counterterrorism and intelligence expert who works at the Center for Strategic and International Studies:
Nelson ran down a long list of potential options for discreet communication, including dummy Twitter accounts, disposable cellphones and encrypted e-mails. Nelson said there are programs that can make it seem that an e-mail user has a different address each time.
In terms of trying to monitor Payton's activities, Nelson added, the N.F.L.'s options are limited. The league is restricted by basic privacy laws — meaning, for example, it cannot be like the Central Intelligence Agency and tap Payton's phones — though it could use private investigators to follow Payton or watch him from public areas.
Spies! Encryption! We're starting to get into some serious Homeland territory now!
Payton has received approval to attend a few Saints-related events, like the game in October where quarterback Drew Brees broke Johnny Unitas' record of 47 straight games with a touchdown pass. But he's required to report any NFL-related contact to the league, even if it's accidental.
So what does a coach do when he can't coach? Well, golf, of course. But also: coach. Payton has served as offensive coordinator for his son's sixth-grade team, which is sort of like LeBron James taking a year off to play church league basketball. His reinstatement is contingent on commissioner Roger Goodell's approval, which is reason enough to keep Payton on the straight-and-narrow for 2012.
Still, even though there is no evidence to support any kind of cloak-and-dagger spy gaming going on here, we'll continue to hope that there's both smoke and fire. Makes the NFL even more interesting. Shame HBO didn't jump on this story earlier. This would've made for the best season of "Hard Knocks" ever.
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