Some of what happens in the NFL can seem so lawless, wanton even, that you almost forget the game has rules. But Roger Goodell keeps on trying to remind everybody — with his fines, suspensions and admonishments — that there really are limits, that you really can go too far.
Wednesday he delivered his loudest message yet, a message that all but screams: Can you hear me now? He knocked the New Orleans Saints around, come to think of it, the way the Saints knocked Brett Favre around in the NFC title game two years ago, when they reportedly put a bounty on the famed quarterback and went to unusual lengths to incapacitate him.
You might say the commissioner got a little angry. In fact, when he was mulling the penalties that were announced Wednesday, he probably started ranting like John Belushi in "Animal House":
Williams, he's a dead man! Payton, dead! Loomis, dead!
Gregg Williams, the defensive coordinator who encouraged the pay-for-pain scheme, is still alive, of course; but the erstwhile Washington Redskins assistant likely needed some smelling salts after learning he's been suspended indefinitely — a year at least, but, given Maximum Roger's mood, possibly longer. Saints coach Sean Payton also will sit out the coming season, and general manager Mickey Loomis will be barred from his office for half the year.
And that's not all. New Orleans also lost two second-round draft picks, and the commissioner has yet to deal with the players involved. By the time he's done, the Saints might be reduced to playing walk-ons.
Some will say the punishment doesn't fit the crime, that NFL players treat one another savagely whether they get bonuses for it or not. But there's more than one crime here. Aside from the bounties — which have been prohibited for some time — the Saints were guilty of lying to the league office when the subject was first broached with them in 2010, after their Super Bowl win. Institutions, generally speaking, don't like to be lied to. Remember when the NCAA got medieval on Bob Wade because he wouldn't come clean with them about violations in the Maryland basketball program?
It's hard to decide which is more loathsome, the arrogance of rewarding players for "egregious hits," as the league calls them, or the arrogance of coaches and administrators who act like they aren't answerable to anybody. There's a megalomania at work in this sorry spectacle, a we-can-do-anything-we-feel-like mentality that's deeply troubling.
Anyway, it's this kind of behavior that led to the Spygate fiasco in New England, and now it's raised an even bigger stink, one that will linger all season. It's almost inconceivable that an NFL franchise could be this clueless, could not recognize that serious injuries — concussions and the like — pose a danger not just to the players' health but to the financial viability of the league. There's no telling where these lawsuits filed by disabled NFLers will lead ... or what other suits might follow in their wake. Damages could be in the hundreds of millions, perhaps even more.
So the idea that this is just a grandstand play by Goodell, a disproportionate response to an age-old (though hush-hush) pro football custom, is simply misguided. If the commissioner didn't throw a few thunderbolts, didn't show zero tolerance for such recklessness, the league's credibility would have suffered. Yes, the game is, by definition, violent, but players shouldn't be offered incentives to ramp up that violence, to make the violence an end in itself. Enough players, after all, are going to be hurt, unavoidably, on any given Sunday.
Fifty years ago, two prominent NFL players, Green Bay Packers running back Paul Hornung and Detroit Lions defensive tackle Alex Karras, were caught betting on games and were suspended for a year. For the commissioner back then, Pete Rozelle, it was a no-brainer. Nothing undermines the legitimacy of a sport more than the shadow of gambling. It's interesting to note, though, that the incident wasn't a career-killer for either of the principals. Hornung returned to the Packers, won two more championships and went on to the Hall of Fame. Karras, meanwhile, rejoined the Lions, was voted All-Pro two seasons later and, after his playing days were over, spent some time in the "Monday Night Football" booth.
Goodell's verdict is just as cut and dried. What the Saints did was reprehensible and wrong. But as with Hornung and Karras, it doesn't have to ruin the lives of Williams (who had already moved on to St. Louis), Payton, Loomis or anybody else who had the hammer dropped on them. What's important is that the commissioner's ruling resonates throughout the league - and that this never happens again.
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