- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 13, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION: 

As the Bounty Scandal winds down in the NFL, I find myself thinking more and more about Jason Giambi. It was Giambi who, in the aftermath of baseball’s PED feeding frenzy, owned up to what he’d done. It was he who said, “I was wrong for using that stuff. What we should have done a long time ago was stand up — players, ownership everybody — and said, ‘We made a mistake.’”

Giambi’s was a rare moment, one to be cherished, because there’s precious little remorse in sports anymore. There’s only deny, deny, deny — until the athlete is buried in an avalanche of irrefutable evidence. Or maybe, 15 years later, he gets a pang of conscience like Pete Rose did. But more often, he’ll try to find some loophole, some technicality, that will enable him to escape retribution (see Ryan Braun). Or perhaps an associate will concoct an alibi straight out of the Three Stooges (see Melky Cabrera).

Rarely does an athlete ever “stand up” in these situations. Barry Bonds, Lance Armstrong — you can go right on down the list. I asked my son about this once, about the younger generation’s peculiar attitude toward crime and punishment. “What you have to understand,” he said, “is that it’s OK to be right nowadays, you’re just not allowed to make anybody feel like they’re wrong.”

Next week the Bounty Four — past and present New Orleans Saints Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove — are expected to have their much-delayed sit-down with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. It comes on the heels of a ruling by an appeals panel that voided (temporarily, at least) the suspensions Goodell handed out and asked for clarification on whether the penalties were for conduct detrimental to the game (the commish’s province) or for receiving illegal bonuses for “big plays” (Special Master Stephen Burbank’s bailiwick).

I used quotation marks in the last sentence because the league has always contended that some of those big plays were deliberate attempts to injure. And if you heard the audio of Gregg Williams’ pep talk to the New Orleans defense before last season’s playoff game against San Francisco, heard him tell his players to “affect the head” of the opposition, you know the allegations about the Saints were more than just smoke. There was some fire there, too.

The question has always been: How much? But that isn’t the question Vilma and the others have been preoccupied with. What they’ve been preoccupied with is: How much does the NFL really know, and how much do we have to admit to? Or to put it another way, it’s become a battle between the Best Interests of Football and the Best Interests of Four Players — and there’s no intersection between the two.

Up to now, the Bounty Four have been perfectly content to hang the whole thing on a rogue coach (Williams) who’s been banished from the league for a year. That “affect the head” business? Oh, that was just Gregg being theatrical. Nobody took that seriously. One piece of evidence the NFL showed the union, though, listed the Saints‘ “2010 ‘kill the head’ totals,” Mike Freeman of CBSSports.com reported. “It’s a simple column that has player names and then the phrase ‘kill the heads’ with numbers underneath. Vilma, for example, had 62 kill the heads.”

Yet at no point has the linebacker acknowledged that anything was amiss in New Orleans. To hear him tell it, the Saints were no different from any other team in the league. They were just playing good, hard football. And maybe he’s right in the first instance. Maybe bounties or pay-for-performance bonuses or whatever you want to call them are widespread in the game. But so far, the Saints are the only club that’s gotten caught handing them out. What do they expect the commissioner to do, ignore it? Cover it up?

You think back to another scandal half a century ago, the betting embarrassment involving Green Bay’s Paul Hornung, Detroit’s Alex Karras and a handful of other Lions. Karras, to his credit, never denied gambling on games, even when the question was put to him on NBC’s evening news. “I got nothing to hide,” he said later. “The guy asked me a question, and I gave him a truthful answer. What did everybody expect me to do lie about it?”

Hornung was equally forthcoming — to the commissioner at the time, Pete Rozelle, and the media. “It was a carefree, thoughtless thing I did,” he said. It would be nice if one of the Saints, just one, could look himself in the mirror like that, could concede that what went on in New Orleans was, at the very least, thoughtless. But that’s just not the way the world works these days. In 2012, it’s OK to be right, you’re just not allowed to make anybody feel like they’re wrong.

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