When the “bounty” program that the Saints were running came to light, I was one of the first ones to wonder what the big deal was. I would never claim that a bounty system is legal or even ethical, but in a game where it is a defense’s primary objective to use physicality to stop the opposing offense from moving the ball, it just didn’t seem all that crazy to me. I didn’t know the full story. What the Saints did was far worse than just running a bounty system that rewarded players for big plays and injuring opposing stars. They lied about it in order to keep their illegal system going long after the NFL first started investigating.
The cliché is that the cover-up is worse than the crime. I don’t even necessarily agree with that, because covering up your crime is a pretty natural defense mechanism. Again, I am a pretty understanding person and ultimately we are talking about a game that is violent by nature. The bounty system is over the line, but I’m not going to pretend like I am outraged or that I don’t understand. Where I finally started understanding Roger Goodell is that the Saints kept their bounty program going even after it was first investigated. In the end, this seems to be what drew the level of punishment that the Saints received. In my mind it is the thing that ultimately justifies the NFL’s actions as well.
It is one thing to run a bounty program that encourages big plays and, yes, knocking out opposing teams’ star players. It is quite another to cover it up in order to keep the program going. That is a spit in the face of rules and leadership that is more dangerous than just the program. The NFL has to be able to exert control over NFL clubs and players at least with regard to rules.
You may think the NFL overstepped in something like the salary cap penalties against the Redskins and Cowboys, but it is hard to argue that the NFL doesn’t need to retain the kind of control they’re exerting over the Saints. To have a team get called out for illegal activity as the Saints were in early 2010 by the NFL’s investigation and then brashly continue the program was the ultimate crime. Early 2010 indicates to me that it was after the 2009 season, yet the Saints continued their illegal program in the face of investigation for two seasons thereafter.
The NFL’s extensive investigation established the existence of an active bounty program on the Saints during the 2009, 2010, and 2011 seasons in violation of league rules, a deliberate effort to conceal the program’s existence from league investigators, and a clear determination to maintain the program despite express direction from Saints ownership that it stop as well as ongoing inquiries from the league office.
So back to my original premise, I think a bounty program deserves a slap on the wrist type punishment. I don’t think it is out of character with the spirit of the sport even if it does definitively step over the lines of ethical and sportsmanlike behavior. Call me old fashioned, but I’m firmly in the “boys will be boys” camp on that one. But, when the Saints lied about it, they didn’t thank their stars they might have gotten away with one and ended the program. They kept it going. This pushes it way beyond any kind of “boys will be boys” category for me.
Is the NFL hypocritical on injuries? Sure. Their proposal for an 18 game schedule is not really in line with the talk about player health and safety, especially with regard to concussions and head trauma. So what? Just because they can be somewhat hypocritical doesn’t mean that the penalties handed out to the Saints are overkill. If the NFL went lighter on the Saints would it make them less hypocritical? That argument doesn’t lead anywhere. It is a distraction and nothing more.
We’ll see where it goes from here, but I’m guessing Scott Fujita and his teammates aren’t looking at meaningless little punishments. Even if you believe Scott Fujita that he wasn’t anything like Jonathan Vilma – named in the report for ponying up $10k for Brett Favre – you have to think he is in serious danger of missing games this season. He already admitted to paying for plays. If he has one saving grace, it might be that he was in Cleveland immediately following 2009 meaning that unless he was questioned by the NFL directly in early 2010, he didn’t have anything to do with the cover-up.
You can read the full announcement from the NFL at ProFootballTalk.