Last week, the NFL released the findings of its investigation of claims that the New Orleans Saints and defensive coordinator Greg Williams had issued bounties on the heads of opposing players during the Saints' 2009 championship season. In its statement, the league found that Williams and defensive leaders issued such bounties, made payments on such issues, and that head coach, Sean Payton, new about, but did not counter, such bounties, despite a league edict that he do so.
The timing of the league's announcement is foreboding for the Saints. In the wake of the filing of a civil suit against the league by former NFL player Dave Duerson's survivors, the league has little option but to take seriously its findings in the Saints' case. This is true not only because the league already has legal and image problems pertaining to the health issues increasingly correlated with excessive contact in the game, but also because the league has a zero tolerance policy specifically banning bounties.
Williams, Payton, and Saints players, if not also the organization, flaunted not only league edict, but any sense of boundaries between football as a sport and football as a criminal endeavor. Rewarding illegal hits that cause intentional physical harm to a player is as unconscionable an act as can be perpetrated in the modern NFL. Despite NFL spokesperson Greg Aiello's interest in keeping the matter a league matter, there is no question that the acts also merit criminal investigation--not something at which the NFL can look askance.
In assessing the proper penalty to impose upon the Saints in this matter, league commissioner Roger Goodell must, therefore, not only concern himself with the league's policies and real issues already confronting the league owing to its disregard for and manipulation of player concerns over concussions and other injuries, but also with deterrence.
In 2007, the league fined Patriots head coach Bill Belichek $500,000 and the Patriots $250,000 for spying on the New York Jets' practice. The league also took away a first-round draft pick from the Patriots.
Spy-gate was a violation of league policy and embarrassing for the Patriots and the league, but it, unlike the affairs in New Orleans, was not a criminal offense and did not damage on-going league efforts to confront meritorious civil claims.
The Saints should expect no less than a multi-million dollar fine. Peyton and any players participating in the scheme should expect a league suspension and Williams should be banned from the NFL. But that still would not fully address the wrongs committed by the Saints in 2009-2010, and probably earlier, nor would it put the league in the position it needs to be in when confronting its other lawsuits. To even approach this latter position, the league needs to send a far stronger message, one that deters not just players, a coordinator, and head coach from so acting, but one that makes clear that the consequences will be harsh. That means stripping the Saints of their next three first-round picks and of their Super Bowl championship. Anything less would contradict the league's claim that it takes seriously player safety.
Up Next: Sunken Costs?