The New Orleans Saints are surely not the only NFL team in recent years to have adopted and tolerated a bounty system, and in some ways they're about to pay a price for a semi-accepted cultural idiosyncrasy. In a sport as violent and competitive as professional football, it's hardly surprising that knocking an opponent out of a game would be deemed worthy of internal reward.
However, with the Saints on the verge of absorbing the equivalent of a vicious kill shot from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, it's hard to say the organization doesn't have it coming. Between the apparent rash of lies during the recently completed league investigation, the franchise's reckless disregard for NFL rules at a time when there's a conspicuous push for improved player safety and the residual effects of a prior scandal narrowly averted, the Saints have been marching toward retribution for some time.
You might say it's about time Goodell forced the Saints to take their medicine – and while a hopeless cliché, it's a term of which I'm fairly sure Geoffrey Santini would approve.
Santini, the Saints' former director of security, filed a lawsuit against the franchise 22 months ago, alleging that general manager Mickey Loomis asked him to participate in a cover-up of felony theft of prescription Vicodin involving coach Sean Payton.
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At the time, with the Saints still basking in the glow of their first Super Bowl championship, Santini's allegations seemed capable of carrying massive consequences that could have cost Loomis and/or Payton their jobs and subjected the two men to prosecution. Shortly thereafter, in what amounted to a procedural equivalent of a game-winning, tipped-pass touchdown on the final play, the Saints compelled Santini to drop the suit by invoking an arbitration clause in his contract that effectively put the matter under Goodell's jurisdiction and out of the public eye.
That, Saints fans, was your lucky break for the decade, perhaps for the century.
The team you love won't be so fortunate this time around, nor should it be.
First off, this isn't just about bounties. Encouraging the intentional infliction of injury upon an opponent is shady, and it's also unbelievably tone deaf. Given the revelations in recent years regarding the scary effects of head trauma – and the push by the league and NFL Players Association to acknowledge and address the scope of the problem – being the NFL's poster children for headhunters is far from enviable.
From a branding perspective, Goodell has to take significant action. If Protecting the Shield is his mantra, the Saints have hereby become the sinners.
Even worse, it seems clear that there was a concerted attempt to mislead the commissioner once the offense was brought to his attention. According to si.com, the investigation report concluded that Loomis lied to league security officials about the existence of the bounty program and essentially did the same to owner Tom Benson by promising to dismantle such a program if he were to learn of its existence.
We'll get to the second point later. As to the first, it looks as though Loomis essentially tried to b.s. Goodell by blatantly concealing the truth. Three words as to how the commissioner will likely react: Remember Michael Vick?
Former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, the apparent mastermind of the program, also seems to have been untruthful to investigators before eventually coming clean. And it gets worse: According to Goodell's statement in the press release announcing the result of the investigation last Friday, "numerous players and other individuals … denied that any such program existed."
Suffice it to say that most CEOs would not react well to such a state of affairs.
If you're a fan of the Saints, chances are you're viewing this situation through the narrow prism of your loyalties. You're likely thinking that many other teams employ bounty-style systems – indeed, reports have since surfaced that Williams engaged in similar practices during previous stops in Buffalo, Tennessee and Washington – and that your favorite franchise is being unfairly singled out.
My first thought is that you sound a lot like New England Patriots fans did after Spygate in 2007 – and, in many cases, still do to this day. Everyone films opposing coaches giving signals on the sideline. … It's not illegal to watch it, so why should the act of videotaping it even matter? … It didn't even give us a competitive edge. …
The rules are the rules, and if someone breaks them, he should be punished, regardless of which NFL team happens to sign his check – the thing you have to remember is that this isn't about just you.
Just as Spygate was bigger than the Patriots, this bounty scandal has ramifications that extend far beyond the Saints. It's about a league whose popularity hinges largely on the perception of competitive balance and inherent fairness, and when either of those principles is conspicuously compromised, all 32 teams collectively suffer.
Some would say Spygate is worse than the current imbroglio, because it clearly gave the Pats a competitive edge. (If not, why would they have done it in the first place?) Others would insist that the Saints' transgressions are more severe, given the potentially brutal consequences that the intentional infliction of injury can cause.
From Goodell's perspective, they're both horrendous, and he's going to make sure the people responsible pay accordingly. And while Williams, now the Rams' defensive coordinator, issued a less pathetic "apology" than Bill Belichick's laughable "I misinterpreted the rules" rationalization, it's reasonable to assume the penalties for the bounty scandal will be more severe than those handed down 4½ years ago.
For one thing, Goodell has more de facto power now, having survived a labor war that resulted in a new 10-year collective bargaining agreement and an ensuing barrage of insanely lucrative extensions with the league's network partners.
Secondly, while Goodell and New England owner Robert Kraft are close – and the former rightfully credits the latter with having helped champion his selection as Paul Tagliabue's successor – Benson isn't one of the league's cool kids.
Thirdly, this scandal has tentacles that continue to spread. With the Washington Post reporting that the league will now investigate the Redskins for the bounty program that may have existed when Williams served as the team's defensive coordinator, and a distinct possibility that the Titans and Bills could be next, that makes a minimum of five franchises (including the Saints and Rams, who'd be stung by a likely suspension of their new defensive coordinator) likely to be impacted.
If the fallout in New Orleans is the most severe – well, it's tough to cast the Saints' powers-that-be as persecuted victims. Given that the league believes Loomis lied to Benson and NFL investigators about something so important, you can chalk up the general manager's possible demise to recklessness and foolishness.
If you're a Saints fan, rather than getting bitter toward Goodell, target your anger toward Loomis, Payton, Williams and the other authority figures who created and perpetuated this mess. And keep this matter in perspective, as Goodell certainly will.
After all, this is the franchise's second potentially scandalous saga in less than two years, and it's not going to get another miracle reprieve.
The harsh hand of justice is about to smack down those who broke the rules and lied to cover up their culpability, and nothing in the team's medicine cabinet will ease the pain.
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- Mickey Loomis
- Gregg Williams