Saints penalties less about bounties; more about a new NFL

"The problem with the rat race is that even when you win, you're still a rat." -- Lily Tomlin

If you thought NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wasn't serious about player safety ... well, boom. He has laid the smack down on the New Orleans Saints in a serious way, and the repercussions could extend far beyond the purview of a few coaches and executives suspended for lying to the boss.

In case you've been living on a mountain all day, here's a brief summary of the penalties handed out:

-- The New Orleans Saints are fined $500,000. In addition, because the violation involves a competitive  rule, the Saints will forfeit their selections in the second round of the 2012 and 2013 NFL drafts.

-- Saints Head Coach Sean Payton is suspended without pay for the 2012 NFL season, effective April 1.

-- Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis is suspended without pay for the first eight regular season  games of the 2012 season.

-- Former Saints (and current St. Louis Rams) defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is suspended indefinitely from the NFL, effective immediately. Commissioner Goodell will review Coach Williams'  status at the conclusion of the 2012 season and consider whether to reinstate him, and, if so, on what terms. Commissioner Goodell said he will give close attention to the extent\ to which Coach Williams  cooperates with the NFL in any further proceedings.

-- Saints assistant Head Coach Joe Vitt is suspended without pay for the first six regular-season games of the 2012 season.

-- The Saints and the individuals disciplined today are expected to participate in efforts led by the league  office to develop programs that will instruct players and coaches at all levels of the game on the need for respect for the game and those who participate in it, on principles of fair play, safety and sportsmanship, and to ensure that bounties will not be part of football at any level.

In other words, those punished who are still within sniffing distance of an NFL paycheck  have the same two choices presented to Frankie Pentangeli at the end of Godfather II: Spill the beans, or open your veins.

The severe suspensions and fines handed out to several current and former Saints coaches and executives -- this was the atomic bomb Goodell had been waiting for. Goodell and the league know full well, and for a good long time, that players were being paid under the table for tackles meant to injure opponents at a level that would have those opponents out of games entirely.

"Beyond the clear and continuing violations of league rules, and lying to investigators, the bounty program is  squarely contrary to the league's most important initiatives — enhancing player health and safety and protecting the integrity of the game," Goodell said in his Wednesday statement announcing the penalties. "Let me be clear. There is no place in the NFL for deliberately seeking to injure another player, let alone offering a reward for doing so. Any form of bounty is  incompatible with our commitment to create a culture of sportsmanship, fairness, and safety. Programs of this kind have no place in our game and we are determined that bounties will no longer be a part of the NFL."

That's good league-speak, but the Saints got in the way of a higher imperative. Just as Major League Baseball Commissioners Kenesaw Mountain Landis and A. Bartlett Giamatti did in the Chicago Black Sox and Pete Rose cases, and just as NBA Commissioner David Stern did in the Tim Donaghy case, Goodell was able to exact the most severe punishment possible because he had three things in his favor: a desperate need to end something rotten in his sport, a mandate for change (whether external of self-invented), and an easy target (or series of targets) on which to drop that bomb. And if you think that players betting on baseball and crooked zebras are more dangerous to a league than a bunch of coaches acting like Jon Voight in Varsity Blues, stay tuned. There are moral and ethical tripwires in what the Saints did, and that is at the very heart of what Goodell is trying to destroy by any means necessary.

Goodell also released a statement through the league indicating that any other team found to be on the wrong side of the bounty issue in future will be paying a serious price.

In a memo to NFL clubs, Commissioner Goodell directed the principal owner of every NFL team to meet with the head coach and confirm that the club does not operate a similar pay-for-performance or bounty program and to instruct his coach that no such program is permissible and that if such a program exists, it must be terminated immediately.

Each principal owner and head coach must certify this in writing to the commissioner by March 30.

"Bounty programs have no place in our game," Commissioner Goodell stated. "They are incompatible with our efforts to promote sportsmanship, fair play, and player safety."

This will be part of Goodell's "Integrity of the Game Policy," and it states that each team must certify every league year, in writing, that there are no "pay-for-performance" incentives and no other non-contract bonus payment. More than just the concern about bounties, there's a legitimate concern here that certain teams (and most certainly the New Orleans Saints) have been or could be paying their players under the table in ways that circumvent the salary cap, violate the collective bargaining agreement, and will probably draw the interest of the Internal Revenue Service. And if you think Goodell's tough ... well, mister, you've never been on the wrong end of an audit.

"That's very expensive real estate, this high moral ground." -- Larry Ellison

When looking at the full and overarching reasons Goodell came down so hard on the Saints, it's easy to see that this isn't just about a few errant coaches paying a few players a couple thousand bucks for the odd take-out hit. The Saints didn't just lie to Goodell throughout the three year investigation -- in truth, head coach Sean Payton is getting hammered so hard because of an egregious breach of contract. As are Williams, other coaches, and members of the team's front office. From the Saints suspension statement:

A 2007 amendment to the NFL Constitution and By-Laws obligated coaches and supervisory employees "to communicate openly and candidly with the principal owner and/or his designated representative; to ensure that club ownership is informed on a complete and timely basis of all matters affecting the club's operations; and to avoid actions that undermine or damage the club's reputation or operating success." The obligation to supervise the coaching staff and players is also expressly set forth in the employment agreement signed by Coach Payton.

Payton didn't just lie about a nebulous set of unwritten rules-- he lied about something he signed, turned into the league, and was expected to live by as a condition of his employment. That's an entirely different level of wrong, and he's lucky to be out just a year.

As for Williams, the league's statement says that "Williams now acknowledges that when he was first questioned about this matter in early 2010, he intentionally misled NFL investigators and made no effort to stop the program after he became aware of the league's investigation ... Williams further confirmed that the program continued during the 2010 and 2011 seasons, and that he occasionally contributed funds to the pool in each of those seasons."

The league isn't just nailing Payton because he should have known better. They're nailing him because he's expected to act as an ethical custodian to his franchise. Williams was by far the hardest-hit by the punishments -- his indefinite suspension could easily turn into a lifetime ban, and that's something I'm in favor of after learning of his history. But the league's investigation revealed that it was Payton who directed Williams to do his thing without let or hindrance. Despite Williams' own well-deserved reputation for playing outside the rules, Goodell's ultimate disgust was directed at Payton, who should have known better and not only turned a blind eye to a strategy that shortened and ended viable NFL careers, but unleashed the dogs because he knew he would benefit from it.

"Coach Williams acknowledged that he designed and implemented the program with the assistance of certain  defensive players. He said that he did so after being told by Saints Head Coach Sean Payton that his  assignment was to make the defense 'nasty.' Coach Williams described his role as overseeing record keeping,  defining [bounty] payout amounts, deciding on who received payouts, and distributing envelopes with cash to players  who 'earned' rewards."

"There are two reasons men do things. There's the good reason, and there's the real reason." -- John Pierpoint Morgan

Anyone who read anything I wrote during last year's lockout would know that I am generally no fan of Roger Goodell's. For the most part, I find him to be wooden, autocratic, unnecessarily inflexible, and fond of a "ready-fire-aim" philosophy that often has him overreacting to things he should have stomped out before things came to a head.

But in this case, Goodell and his lieutenants did everything the right way. Their investigation was comprehensive and exhaustive. They gave the Saints multiple opportunities to admit their trespasses and move on without severe penalty, and the Saints responded like those players who bet on the game and the refs who took bribes and got involved in severe ethical and legal breaches for one reason and one reason alone -- they thought they were above the law.

In early 2010, Mr. Loomis advised Coach Payton that the league office was investigating allegations  concerning a bounty program.  Coach Payton said that he met with his top two defensive assistants, Coach  Williams and Coach Vitt, in advance of the interview with league investigators and told them, "Let's make sure  our ducks are in a row." Remarkably, Coach Payton claimed that he never inquired of Coach Williams and  Coach Vitt as to what happened in the interviews, never asked them if a "pay-for-performance" or bounty program was in fact in place, and never gave any instructions to discontinue such a program.

Saints fans are undoubtedly angry and heartbroken with these results, and their ire is certainly primarily directed at Goodell. But as much as I've panned the man in the past, the Commish is totally undeserving of any potshots this time. Today, he did something that will hold the league in good stead for years to come. Because if any team attempts to target opposing players outside the rules -- say, if a defender lays a hit on Peyton Manning's neck -- it's entirely possible that such a player would be looking at a long future in the Indoor Football League.

More (in fact, most) importantly, Goodell has evaporated any inkling that he won't go as far as he can to eliminate a culture of dishonesty and unfair competitive advantage. That isn't a paper-pusher sending out memos to refs asking them to throw extra unnecessary roughness flags so that there can be an 18-game season down the road. This is the leader of the sport stepping up when required, and bring the NFL that much closer to what we love about it -- and further away from the things that would erode it from the inside out.

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