Roger Goodell Is The Wizard Of Oz, Or: Thoughts On The Saints Bounty Hunting Scandal

Word broke late last Friday afternoon that the NFL was mounting a huge investigation into an alleged “bounty hunting” system employed by the New Orleans Saints under former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.  The common perception right now is that Williams may have coached his last game in the NFL and that the Saints will face heavy penalties including and not limited to any of the following: fines, suspensions, and loss of draft picks.  It is suspected that the punishment will be far more severe than that of the New England Patriots when they were caught cheating in the infamous Spygate scandal.  It is believed that the Saints will likely not be the only organization penalized for the offense either.  More details continue to leak from around the league that several other teams carried out similar schemes.

What’s excellent about this situation, if there’s anything excellent that can be drawn from a situation of the rewarding the intentional, organized violence against individuals, is that it’s opened up a much-needed dialogue amongst fans and analysts of the NFL.  For years, the league did its best to avoid the issue of long-term football-related injuries, only choosing to get proactive in the last year or so after a series of devastsating pieces by newspapers and magazines across the country.  After finally facing the music on that issue, it seems that it’s now going to have to address the other big elephant in the room (way ahead of schedule, I might add): the fact that football is really, really, really violent.

When plowing through every column on this very issue, there are a couple of common themes that arise in decrying what the Saints did.  The first is that it takes away from the integrity of the game in the same way intentionally aiming a fastball at a batter’s head would do in baseball.  The second is that what Williams oversaw was actually a criminal offense, which could be prosecuted under the law.  The final is that the NFL has to do anything possible to salvage its image, given the future repercussions surrounding long-term football-related injuries— basically seizing control of the message now.

That last issue is probably the most important from the perspective of the public and it’s exactly the reason Roger Goodell is expected to absolutely hammer the Saints in the coming weeks.

What I think is great is that we’re being forced as a society to examine what exactly we’re willing to permit from a sport before it is deemed socially unacceptable.  There is a growing movement in this country that believes football could possibly go the way of boxing in the very near future. What I mean to say is that at some point society as a whole will deem football too violent to celebrate anymore and slowly but surely the popularity of the sport will wane until it becomes an afterthought in the American sporting conscience.  At the heart of the issue, this might be what Roger Goodell is most afraid of, although he’d never admit it publicly.

It’s a very fine line, when you think about. 

Somehow we’re willing to accept that a strong safety running at full speed, colliding with and breaking a wide reveiver’s leg is okay.  Somehow that same safety hitting a receiver at full speed, with the receiver’s natural reaction of curling up his body in anticipation of the imminent contact thus causing a helmet-to-helmet impact is completely outside the rules and punishable by fines though.  For some reason we celebrate a fullback blowing up a blitzing linebacker even though his quarterback has already thrown a pass, but decry that linebacker when he blows up a quarterback who has already thrown a pass.

A serious credibility question that the NFL has to address in the future will be how it can possibly legislate between what acts of violence are permissible and what aren’t.  I just don’t see any way out of the hypocrisies that become very apparent when you sit down and think it all the way through.

I brought up this very issue to one of the national columnists (Gregg Doyel of CBS) that criticized the Saints earlier this morning.  We had a quick back-and-forth with me pointing out that he is a huge fan of MMA, UFC-style fighting.  I wondered how he possibly reconciled the difference between the violence of that sport and the violence of the NFL.  His response was the following, “MMA is understood risk. NFL players being paid extra to try to KNOCK OUT an opponent? Not understood risk.”

I disagree though.  How do the players in the NFL not understand the risk they take every time they step out onto a football field?  How could anyone actually be naive enough to believe that?  Football is a sport played by men with (likely) the most finely-tuned bodies in the history of civilization.  They lift weights, alter diets, and take substances (both illicit and not) from their early teens on in preparation for the physical requirements of playing in the league.  Throw in the fact that the most-desired trait of any potential NFL employee is speed and you basically have a recipe for destruction.  These are gigantic men with gigantic muscles running at impossible speeds that result in violent collisions, many of which resulting in players getting “knocked out.”  I don’t think it’s a stretch to believe that at some point in their lives every player considers that there is an understood risk to playing football, that any time you take the field it could be the last.

And again, I think that’s what is at stake here.

Roger Goodell wants to continue the illusion that the NFL actually has control of the violence that takes place on a football field.  Roger Goodell wants you to believe that there is some very definable line between the types of violence committed by these Saints players and the type of violence you witness every Sunday between “clean” players.  Roger Goodell wants you to believe that he is very much in charge of all of that.

Instead what you should find is that the NFL is trying to keep a veil over your eyes.  This is very much an institution coming to the realization that its great illusion is about to be discovered.  The public is about to find out how great a fallacy the NFL’s business model actually is.  This is the same league that seriously believes changing to an 18-game regular season schedule won’t have a direct correlation to player health and safety, after all.

What the Saints did was wrong.  They broke rules.  They tried to cover up the fact that they broke the rules.  They deserve to be punished.

But how long until we pull back the curtain and see that Roger Goodell is really just another Wizard of Oz trying to sustain a crumbling empire built on and profiting off the very same principles the Saints will be punished for? 

Violence is violence whether it comes from legal blocks, tackles, or even (gasp!) intentionally dirty plays.


It Turns Out Drew Brees Was Playing Hurt All Season

I don’t want to toot my own horn too much, but I predicted this announcement was coming multiple times this season.  It never seemed like Brees was 100% there and now we know why.  From NBC Sports:

Coach Sean Payton initially refused to call it even a “situation.”  More recently, Payton admitted that quarterback Drew Brees played in 2010 with a knee injury.

The cat was let out of the bag by Saints fullback Heath Evans who said on ESPN recently that Drew played six weeks of the 2010 season with an MCL injury.

Brees elaborated on the non-situation situation during a Tuesday appearance on PFT Live.

He said the injury happened in Week Three of the 2010 season, and he talked about the measures that were taken so that he could play with the injury.

So of course this means everyone in the media is going to inevitably turn this around back on Cutler.  However, shouldn’t we maybe start to expect that the Saints will be fined for not fully disclosing the nature of this injury throughout the year.  Seems fairly similar to the penalty imposed on the Jets during Favre’s time there.

[NBC Sports]