On March 21st of this year, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodall suspended New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton for the entire 2012 season, and suspended Greg Williams, who is now in Saint Louis, indefinitely because of a reported bounty program.
The bounty program, which first came to the NFL’s attention in early 2010, was reportedly organized by Williams and more then 20 defensive players. Beginning in 2009, the program included a pool of up to $50,000. Money from the pool was awarded to players that accomplished certain “tasks” during a game. For example, if a player knocked out Brett Farve, he would receive $1,500. If Farve was not knocked out, but had to be removed from the field on a cart, the player would receive $1,000.
Over the course of this off-season, many players that played for Williams have said Williams had similar programs at Washington and Buffalo and the scandal became a hot topic around the water cooler, at the local bar, in living rooms and across the NFL for weeks. We all know that football, by its nature, can be a brutal sport. Men are paid to hit each other as hard as they possibly can and the fans love it. During the course of an NFL season, we see highlights of great passes and catches and graceful runs, but the replays that seem to get the biggest reaction are the hard hits.
This however seemed to be different somehow. Although we have come to expect crushing hits, our sensibilities seemed to be offended somewhat by the notion players and coaches were encouraging, and paying others, to intentionally try and seriously injure another player. It’s one thing to try to separate a player from the ball or keep him from making a catch, it is another to try and possibly end his playing career. When interviewed about the bounty program, one fan is quoted as saying “you have to love the hard hitting. It is kind of like watching a NASCAR race, you enjoy the passing, and you may enjoy the drama in the pits, but you really enjoy watching the wrecks.
A hard hit in an NFL game is the same thing. But trying to really hurt someone, end their career or worse, that crosses the line. Another fan said “why do you think they have a segment on ESPN called ‘Jacked Up’? If you watch football, you want to see the hitting, lots of hard hitting. But there is a big difference between hitting someone hard because you are doing your job as a player, and hitting someone because you want to see them hurt so you can get extra money. I want to see hard nosed football, but I want to see it done in a fair way.”
After much discussion, in the media and in the homes and work place of many NFL fans, the story began to die down and our attention was turned to the draft, where would Peyton Manning land, etc. But unlike other stories this off-season, this one seems to keep rearing its head.
The latest “stirring of the pot” was made by Saints quarterback Drew Brees. In an interview with Sports Illustrated this past week, Brees is quoted as saying "Nobody trusts him (referring to Commissioner Goodell). Nobody trusts him. I'm not talking about a DUI, or using a gun in a strip club, which are pretty clear violations. I think there are too many times where the league has come to its decision in a case before calling a guy in, and the interview is just a façade. I think now if a guy has to come in to talk to Roger, he'll be very hesitant because he'll think the conclusion has already been reached.''
Since Brees made those comments, ESPN football analyst Mark Schlereth, while on the ESPN radio show The Heard, asked why the harsh penalties now. If the NFL knew of bounty program back in 2010, if they conducted a “thorough investigation” as Goodell claims, why was nothing done then? Is it because the NFL now faces a multi million dollar law suit by former players?
I don’t know that anyone, players, coaches, analysts or fans are questioning the fact that the bounty program needed to be stopped and those involved, especially Williams, needed to be punished for their part in it. The question now seems to be is the investigation process flawed and does the commissioner have too much power? Is it fair to have one single person with the ability to order his own people to conduct the investigation, to review the findings, to impose judgment and have the same person decide if that judgment and punishment is fair?
As one fan who was interviewed said “If any court in the United States, criminal or civil, made one person judge, jury and executioner, one can only imagine the outcry. If a judge could refuse to allow the defense to see all of the evidence, ordered his or her own people to perform the entire investigation, handed down a sentence, and heard any and all appeals and was solely responsible for determining if the sentence should stand, we would think we were under some third world dictatorship.” He may just have a point, and this is a question that very well may be discussed not only for the remainder of this off-season, but potentially for years to come.