Monday, March 26, 2012

NFL Rumblings; Part 1

I’ve been out of town the last two weeks, one of those being spent road tripping throughout the South.  Keeping tabs on the sports world was not an easy task, but the fact that everyone in the car had a smart phone made it at least a little more possible.  I did get to catch a majority of the first round of NCAA games, albeit only bits and pieces of each as we moved from one bar to another.  As we honed back in on the Mason-Dixon Line, I began to think about which college basketball team would be the focus of my first column in some time.  Then, in a matter of ESPN App iPhone reloads, our car was hit with a series of trumping NFL issues: Tim Tebow was to become a New York Jet and the New Orleans Saints (just three days after we left the city) officially committed the greatest mistake in NFL history.  When you throw in the now-stale Peyton Manning situation, it was clear that even in a month for college basketball, football still dominates the American sports universe.

Even though the news of the bounty system is several weeks old, the piece of the situation that I have the most challenging time rationalizing is that the Saints, a team that since Hurricane Katrina and the acquisition of Drew Brees has been portrayed as a prideful, passionate, and unified team solely dedicated to bringing success to perhaps the most tormented yet loyal fan base in the country, is now characterized as a collection of lawless degenerates.  The most striking example of this transformation has to be Sean Payton, who’s 5.8 million dollar fine and season-long suspension are by far the most severe penalty to be handed out to a professional head coach/manager ever – with the exception of Pete Rose, whose situation is obviously different.  Payton was the face of all that was good with the Saints.     
It is hard to picture the New Orleans Saints without Sean Payton
on the sidelines.  
Anyone who had a chance to listen to the Jabari Greer interview on Sports Center this past week certainly got a sense of this.  He lamented that the men on New Orleans are individuals of good character and not interested in ending the careers of their football brethren.  Hearing him say these types of things amid the essentially undeniable evidence that the alternative was true made him sound foolish.  Then again, it’s easy to see his perspective.  Should their role in the bounty system become the exception rather than the case?  Were they really trying to hurt opposing players or simply priding themselves on doing so?  Is there a difference?   

It’s easy to answer yes or no to these questions, but like most things, I doubt either truly encapsulates the situation.  It will take a good deal of time before we can sort out this scenario.  In the meantime, Saints players, especially those on the defensive side of the football, are going to have a very similar experience as did players on the Miami Heat last year and up through the present.  The Saints and its players, many of whom cherished what was perhaps an overblown role as the pride of a fallen city, are now the league-wide bad guys.  How will they react when the first random, non-rival fan base boos them as they run out of the tunnel?  Only time will tell if they can handle this indefinitely long-lasting role. 

Getting back to the subsequent punishments, my first reaction was that the league went too far.  New Orleans has lost much of its ability to acquire elite talent through the draft via the removal of two second round picks.  The Saints were also fined half a million dollars.  But the most extreme penalty of all (excluding Greg Williams who is no longer with the team) is the handling of Sean Payton.

When commenting on the bounty system earlier in the month I said it was silly to compare this situation with any other scandal, namely Spygate.  However, upon first hearing the news, my mind immediately went to the penalties levied against Belichick.  At the time, his 500,000-dollar fine seemed heavy.  Now, it’s a slap on the wrist.  In reality, the Sean Payton/Greg Williams penalty must be looked at with respect to, based on its severity, any other NFL violation.  The question is not whether this was an offense worse than spy gate.  We must ask, is this the worst offense ever?       
Payton's penalty was hardly a maximum sentence.  Anything less would
have been inadequate.  
Maybe the injury-incentive system wasn’t the worst thing to ever come about, but it must be the most counter-reformation move in the league’s history.  Thirty years ago this would have never seen such a response.  Many have contended it took place back in the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, and across rosters in the present day.  If this is actually the case, the only reason we never heard about it was that a bounty system wasn’t juicy enough to warrant an sneaky/snitch-like confession and subsequent full-scale investigation. 

But now?

Nothing is of greater importance to Roger Goodell and the NFL than player safety.  For some, this is an area in which the league has previously lagged far behind.  Others think player safety should be all but irrelevant, citing the nobody-is-making-them-play argument.  While I certainly do not believe a bounty system is the worst thing we will discover to exist within different organizations, it is hard to think of something else that could be so detrimental to stressing player safety than stressing player injury. 

It is imperative that the league handles this situation appropriately.  Throwing the checkbook at meatheads like James Harrison is far easier than taxing a mild-mannered, iconic, and seemingly infallible coach.  I first thought the penalty was too strong, but soon realized Goodell needed to set a precedent.  Any attempts made to civilize football, whether you agree with them or not, would have been made all but void if the perception was that he dished out an innocuous punishment to coaches and executives.  New Orleans has been made an example for the rest of the league and you have to imagine that any further violations will be met with even more severe punishments. 

Whether you like the direction in which the NFL is headed or not, the punishment in the Big Easy was the bare minimum that could have occurred without jeopardizing the NFL’s stance on player safety.


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