Roger Goodell sent a message Wednesday that resonated throughout the sports world, and it was more than a resounding blow for player safety or a repudiation of bounties and dishonesty.
Plain and simple, it was a Tony Soprano-style declaration to everyone in the NFL family: You don't have to love me. But you WILL respect me.
In handing down incredibly harsh punishments to the New Orleans Saints and their former defensive coordinator for the bounty scandal that came to light earlier this month, the NFL commissioner left no doubt that he is the league's most potent powerbroker, that he's not going away anytime soon and that anyone who crosses him must do so at his own peril.
[ Related: Saints coach Sean Payton gets one-year suspension ]
This is not an insignificant statement. Goodell technically is employed by the league's 32 owners, one of whom, the Saints' Tom Benson, just lost the services of his head coach (Sean Payton) for the entire 2012 season and his general manager (Mickey Loomis) for half of it, not to mention a pair of second-round draft picks and $500,000. Another owner, the St. Louis Rams' Stan Kroenke, lost his newly hired defensive coordinator (Gregg Williams) "indefinitely" (translation: at least a full season).
Goodell, however, didn't merely flex to his de facto bosses. He also took a machete to the Nixonesque culture that permeates America's most popular sports league and is regarded as a perfectly reasonable way of conducting business. In a league that enables control-freak coaches and autocratic executives who shroud their actions in secrecy and employ an end-justifies-the-means ethos to their jobs, there's a new world order: Don't lie to the league, or conceal your actions, or try to cover them up – or Roger will ruin you.
These punishments may seem harsh, but it wasn't hard to see them coming. As I told you several weeks ago, this is bigger than the Saints (or Rams). From a league-branding perspective, Goodell had little choice but to protect The Shield, visibly and emphatically.
From a personal perspective, Goodell's penalties reflect the sentiments of an angry man – and, in fairness, he has every right to be furious.
Clearly, Payton and others in the Saints organization were stunned by the severity of Wednesday's penalties. In retrospect, were they delusional? Who lies to his/her CEO, gets caught and expects to be dealt with gently? Who instructs associates to "make sure our ducks are in a row" in advance of interviews with company investigators (as Payton did in early 2010, per the NFL's report), gets caught, fails to clean up the behavior in question and isn't asked to clean out his office?
Saints fans – and employees – will myopically complain that the organization is being singled out, scapegoated and dealt a debilitating competitive blow. For the sake of argument, let's indulge them for a few paragraphs.
Singled out? Well, that's a tough case to make. Certainly, bounties have existed in numerous NFL organizations, but this setup was egregious, sustained and undeterred by the heat of a league investigation.
Scapegoated? Absolutely. Goodell is making an example of the Saints and he's not losing any sleep over it. This will be talked about all season, especially if the Saints flail on the field. Either way, it will be a big story that lasts a long time. Let me give you Goodell's Spicoli-esque perspective on that inevitability: Awesome. Totally awesome.
As for the prospect that the Saints were dealt a debilitating competitive blow, well, that's partly for owner Tom Benson to decide. To use a couple of terms that, according to the league's report, the Saints ought to be able to understand: With Payton having been carted off and the league getting ready to crank up the John Deere Tractor for Loomis, the owner has to make a big decision about the direction of his organization.
Prior to Wednesday, a report by Fox's Jay Glazer had suggested that Benson stands firmly behind his coach and GM. Perhaps that is still the case. Payton, to be sure, is a brilliant offensive mind and captivating leader who coached the Saints to their sole championship two years ago. On a personal level, I like the guy a lot, and he's certainly one of the very best in the business.
Loomis, who rose to prominence as a numbers-cruncher, may not be one of the league's most revered talent-evaluators, but he's obviously good at his job, too. Benson surely values organizational stability and wants to keep a good thing going, and perhaps he will bite his lip and try to weather this storm for what could be a lost season.
Or – and this is not as radical as some people may assume it is – Benson could choose to clean house and take this opportunity to make a statement of his own while trying to get his organization in order.
As I told you earlier this month, this is the second full-blown scandal in which Payton and Loomis have been embroiled in less than two years. Allegations of Vicodin theft (by Payton and assistant coach Joe Vitt) from a medical cabinet at the team's facility and an ensuing cover up (by Loomis) disappeared when the accuser, former team security director Geoffrey Santini, withdrew a lawsuit because the matter fell under the umbrella of Goodell's jurisdiction.
That meant things would be kept quiet to the outside world, but you had best believe the specifics of that investigation were on Goodell's mind as he decided upon Wednesday's punishments.
All of these transgressions, alleged or otherwise, should be on Benson's mind. His organization has been stained by the bounty scandal, and he looks like an enabler at worst, an out-of-the-loop buffoon at best. At one point, according to the league, Benson told Loomis to make sure the bounties stopped, and the general manager failed to carry out his directions.
In other words, Loomis lied to his owner. Given the fallout, it's tough not to regard the owner's loyalty to his GM as bizarre.
So let's break it down: If you're Benson, are you best served by appointing an "interim" coach for an entire season – only to set the stage for another abrupt transition (back to Payton) at season's end – and appointing an "interim" GM for the first half of the 2012 campaign? What if the team thrives in Payton's and Loomis' absence? It's all very messy.
Or, as a means of reestablishing your authority as the owner, do you make a clean break? Suffice it to say that firing Payton and Loomis "for cause" – and thus not having to pay them the balance of their contracts – shouldn't be an especially difficult endeavor.
Perhaps Benson's reaction will be one of defiance, specifically toward Goodell: You can't tell me what to do and how to do it, and I'll run my franchise as I please.
If so, the owner might want to rethink his strategy. More than ever before, Goodell is The Sheriff – and he's only getting bolder and more powerful, a trend not likely to end anytime soon.
[ Yahoo! Sports Radio: Ex-Saint Kyle Turley on NFL's punishment]
Eleven months ago, Goodell stood on the Radio City Music Hall podium on draft night and absorbed the boos of a restless fan base. In the midst of a league-imposed lockout, the commissioner became the punching bag for a football-mad populace – and for numerous players who (somewhat inaccurately) viewed him as the impetus for the work stoppage.
During that tumultuous time, I openly wondered whether Goodell could and would survive the negativity. He did – and then some. The 10-year collective bargaining agreement forged between the league and the NFL Players Association last summer was followed by a bump in the league's already enormous popularity, lengthy, lucrative contract extensions with the NFL's broadcast partners and a five-year contract extension for the commissioner.
Make no mistake: Goodell is a much more powerful commissioner than he was a year ago. In the coming years, I expect him to be the type of force that predecessor Paul Tagliabue was – a commissioner not shy about conspicuously telling the owners what to do rather than one charged with doing their bidding (as I believe Goodell was during the lockout).
This may not be to everyone's liking. It may not be fair. It certainly isn't democratic.
But guess what? This is the NFL in the 21st century, and there's no question who runs this family. And after Wednesday, the Don's message is neither subtle nor ambiguous.
You don't have to love me. But you WILL respect me.
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