- Associated Press - Thursday, April 26, 2012

The moment NFL fans have been waiting for since the last seconds ticked away in the Super Bowl arrives Thursday. It’s the draft.

And It figures to be a grand event, full of the kind of pomp and circumstance the NFL is famous for, even though the glamour picks and where they will play have long been decided. Andrew Luck will be toiling for the rebuilding Indianapolis Colts, while Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III will be charged with trying to do what countless quarterbacks before him could not _ win games in the nation’s capital.

While the college elite wait to be picked, another waiting game goes on. Some two dozen current and former members of the New Orleans Saints are wondering if they will play at all when the new season kicks off a few months from now.

Unlike those picked in the draft by their new teams, their futures are more uncertain.

By now they’ve probably figured out that Commissioner Roger Goodell is serious about punishing people _ and punishing them harshly _ when it comes to the bounty scandal that still reverberates through the league. Seeing their coach banned from the league for a year was evidence enough of Goodell’s stern intentions.

Will he hand down suspensions for players who were doing what was demanded of them in a culture they didn’t create? Will he make them sit out games to drive home the point that the NFL has zero tolerance for the kind of head hunting that went on in New Orleans?

The answer is probably yes. It should be yes, at least for those who actively participated in taking up collections or handing out payments for disabling hits. Goodell has little choice but to be as tough with them as he was in suspending coach Sean Payton for the season and indefinitely banning former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.

What Goodell needs more than anything is to quickly put the scandal behind him. It’s already taken away some of the excitement over the draft, and it remains a threat to the league when it comes to defending lawsuits from former players who allege the NFL ignored threats to their physical and mental safety over the years.

That’s why league counsel Jeff Pash expressed frustration last week with the players’ union, saying it seemed more intent on protecting the Saints involved in the bounty scandal than supporting players who could have been hurt by the scheme. Pash said the union was focused on defending or excusing the conduct of Saints players, when it should be looking at the safety of those who were targeted by the pay-for-pain plan.

Goodell said Wednesday that punishments will be coming soon to at least some of the 27 players the league identified as participants from 2009-11. He expressed hope that the penalties could finally help the NFL move past a scandal the league itself uncovered and made public.

NFL fans surely hope so, too. They would rather debate the merits of Luck and Griffin as future star quarterbacks than hear about renegade coaches and players.

The bounty issue, though, is a delicate one for the NFL. Though the league thrives on controlled violence, it must also show it cares about the safety of its players. That’s particularly true now with some 1,200 former players suing the league over health and safety issues, and more joining in almost every day.

Some are big names from the past, putting real faces to an issue that could haunt the league for years. They’re suffering because of what happened to them on the football field, and the NFL can hardly begin to defend itself if it doesn’t come down hard on the blatantly outrageous conduct by the Saints.

Unlike his predecessors, Goodell seems to get it. He’s cracked down on illegal hits, implemented rules to deal with concussions, and served notice that unnecessary violence on the field won’t be tolerated. So far, he’s also earned his stripes as the top cop in the bounty scandal, sticking to his tough suspensions despite protests from some corners that what the Saints did was nothing worse than what other teams have done for years.

Fears that the game will somehow evolve into flag football because of his actions are overblown and illogical. The NFL became America’s favorite sport by giving us hard-hitting mayhem on the field, and the billions of dollars in TV contracts recently negotiated by the league is an indication its biggest business partners don’t believe that is going to change.

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