This is one of those scandals that extends beyond sports. My personal indicator came late this afternoon when I got an email with an NPR link from my friend Tucker, who writes about politics, doesn’t watch and especially doesn’t follow sports, but was interested in what I had to say on the matter. (Though we certainly encourage each other as writers, our vastly disparate interests and content only interest each other when the story transcends our arenas’ normal boundaries.)
As you almost certainly know the background by now, I’ll avoid that and get straight to the takes I thought were most interesting on the subject, briefly respond to them, give a few quick thoughts I haven’t seen yet, and try to guess the punishments for the Saints’ players, coaches, and management.
On Grantland, Charlie Pierce goes on a rampage against NFL culture and hypocrisy:
What reportedly happened in New Orleans makes a mockery of all of that fine Jesuitical moral parsing. Players were paid $1,000 for a “knockout hit” and another $1,000 if a player were to be carried off the field. These events were not incidental to the playing of the game. They were an essential part of it. The players who participated in the program did not do so accidentally. The coaches who designed the program did not do it without knowing full well what it entailed, including the possibility of retaliation if the story ever got out, and a subsequent football arms race that would end up with someone dead on the field. The ownership that claims it didn’t know simply didn’t want to know. And, if the primary defense being mounted in certain quarters of the league’s kept press is true, if the Saints were not alone and if “everybody” does it, then professional football is simply a moral morass with instant replay.
Pierce’s entire piece is worth a read. He goes HARD at the NFL, accusing Goodell and the owners of being motivated more by avoiding future lawsuits than a genuine concern for player safety (more on Goodell later), and wonders whether football–professional and amateur–may be reaching an inflection point in mainstream sustainability given its massively barbaric culture. I’m not usually a big Pierce fan and don’t necessarily agree with everything he writes here–don’t you dare try to take my sweet, sweet football Sundays away!–but this was easily the most thought-provoking column I’ve read on the subject and it came from a comparative outsider.
On SB Nation, Bomani Jones says we need more information before we can evaluate the proper punishments:
So, while it’s known this issue is very important to Roger Goodell, it’s publicly unclear just why. We’ve heard plenty about player safety and the reported dishonesty of Saints players and officials, but not even the players accused of wrongdoing know exactly what the NFL found out. Maybe the idea of coaches incentivizing injury is what boils Goodell’s blood. Or maybe he’s concerned with the most interesting and important question to me — when Michael Ornstein, a convicted felon who did plenty for the Saints during their Super Bowl season, and others contributed to the pool, what was in it for them? If you’re stuck thinking about penny ante bets between violent millionaires, you might be missing what could make this scandal so damaging.
But until the NFL’s report comes to light, everyone is guessing on some level.
Absolutely true. Very little new information has come out since the news broke on Friday–of the 22-27 players (how exactly is there a range?) supposedly involved, we’ve really only heard a few that are for sure and don’t know the extent to which how many are current versus former Saints.
SI’s Don Banks writes that the league sees the “deafening silence” of general manager Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton as a sign that they are trying to paint Gregg Williams as a a rogue:
And apparently the longer Loomis and Payton remain silent on the issue, choosing to not address the bounty controversy, the more the league views their position as one of trying to isolate Williams as the sole culprit in the burgeoning scandal, limiting the perception of their own involvement.
Uh, good luck with that one, you guys. Let me know how that works out for you.
Finally, on The Daily Beast, Buzz Bissinger takes the contrarian route:
That is why we watch football. Because it is barbaric and terrifying and sick. Because we love good hits and kamikaze safety blitzes and a quarterback sitting on the field after a sack with visions of Tweety Bird dancing in his brain.
I’m lovin’ it. So are 99 percent of fans, too many of them afraid to admit it now because they don’t want to endorse a game that is inherently sadistic, a particularly egregious political incorrectism.
Like Pierce, Bissinger also accuses Goodell of cynically valuing future lawsuits over sincere concern for player safety. I see where he’s coming from but there’s a lot of places I disagree. There’s a lot of beauty in football strategy and play–it’s essentially human chess–that goes beyond the barbarism. We do love big hits but I truly believe we love completed hail maries, kickoff returns for touchdowns, and indescribably athletic interceptions even more.
My two cents
- If you are calling for the Saints’ heads to roll, be careful what you wish for. As Tom Silverstein noted on Twitter, the Packers (specifically Charles Woodson and Al Harris) had a bounty program and injured Adrian Peterson in 2007. It wasn’t technically an injury bounty because it was for “holding him under 100 yards” instead of “knocking him out of the game” (the two are at least somewhat coorelated). So, yeah, if everyone wasn’t doing this, I think we can expect that it was at least a majority and there might be a few more players out there with an axe to grind against former assistants and head coaches who are willing to
snitch be whistleblowers. This isn’t just a Gregg Williams problem so don’t wish upon others what you wouldn’t think is fair for your favorite team.
- THAT being said, the “everybody does it” defense isn’t gonna save poor Gregggggg or the Saints organization here. Heads are gonna roll. And they should. Lots of people drive drunk but the more often and more recklessly you do it, the more likely you are to get caught. And the penalty will be the same if it’s your first time taking the risk (at the additional expense of innocent others) or if it’s just your first time getting caught after doing it for decades. Gregg Williams and the Saints appear to be the latter–they were flagrant enough offenders for a 50,000 page report to get compiled and there’s a reason they’re the team being made an example of.
- Drew Brees’ silence has been as deafening as Loomis and Payton’s.
- Darren Rovell and a few others noted that these bounty payments weren’t even close to worth as much as the fines that players incur for illegal hits. No one has ever accused professional athletes of being good at cost/benefit analysis but illegal hits would be particularly unwise investments from a pure monetary perspective. HOWEVER, if it wasn’t a motivating factor, it wouldn’t be so widespread.
- I’d pay at least 5 bucks to watch a professional economist try to explain the math and the theory behind it to Roman Harper and Jonathan Vilma.
- I wrote in my Ryan Braun column that he is lucky he plays baseball–not football–because his suspension appeal was heard by an independent arbitrator as opposed to the governing body which levied his original suspension and “vehemently disagreed” with the arbitrator’s ruling. The players who have moaned for years that Roger Goodell’s personal conduct policy is a one-way street with different rules for team management are about to see that the NFL is an equal opportunity employer.
In this case, Goodell is the ultimate judge, jury, and executioner. As I think Pierce and Bissinger were extrapolating when they said that his motivation in cleaning up the sport’s image is cynical, I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. However, he should not be the one to hear appeals to the punishments he doles out. Absolute power is corrupting–for decades Joe Paterno was seen as the example of a mild-mannered, benevolent dictator but even He was not above covering up child molestation for self-preservation. It’s immensely un-democratic that Goodell hears conduct policy appeals.
What will the punishments be?
- Gregg Williams gets suspended indefinitely. He might be allowed back in the league in a year or two, if that’s what he wants and a team will have him, but I bet that there will be no timeframe on his initial punishment and that he will have to apply for reinstatement.
- Sean Payton gets suspended four games Mickey Loomis gets eight. Not sure how you can possibly enforce any sort of GM duty suspension–wouldn’t it be like baseball managers calling the game through the tunnel?–but half a season seems reasonable. Loomis or both might get fired by Tom Benson (Loomis lied and failed to follow orders in eradicating the bounty program so he’s more likely to get axed than Payton), rendering any NFL suspension non-applicable.
- As Bomani Jones noted, we just don’t have enough information yet to gauge the length of player suspensions. Very interested to see where this ends up going.