The severe punishment NFL commissioner Roger Goodell issued to the New Orleans Saints for running a bounty program from 2009 through 2011 was as much about liability as it was culpability. It was as much about class action as it was the reprehensible actions of the Saints coaches and management.
In suspending Saints coach Sean Payton for a season without pay, general manager Mickey Loomis for eight games, assistant coach Joe Vitt for six games, and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams indefinitely, as well as docking the Saints $500,000 and two draft picks, Goodell is sending a message, not only to teams and players, but to prospective jurors and judges in pending lawsuits against the league.
The wolves are clawing at the NFL's door, and Goodell knows it. More than 300 former players or their spouses are suing the NFL, claiming that it knew about the dangerous and deleterious effects of concussions and repeated blows to the head, but like Payton willfully turned a blind eye to the endangerment of players.
The family of former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson, who committed suicide in February of 2011, is also suing the league. Researchers at Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy studied Duerson's brain and determined that he suffered from CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), a brain disorder caused by repeated head trauma that can result in loss of cognitive ability, depression and impulsive behavior.
Just last month, a lawsuit against the league was filed in New Orleans federal court by 11 ex-players who reside in Louisiana, accusing the league of ignoring the safety risks associated with concussions.
There is irony and hypocrisy in the NFL coming down as hard as it did on the Saints for attempting to gain from others' pain. For years the NFL has profited on the tacit glorification of violence. For most of its existence, the NFL has been a corporate bounty program.
Football is not a contact sport. It's a head-on collision sport and often the collateral damage of those collisions ends up being the bones, ligaments and, sadly now, brains of those who participate in the game.
In a way we are all culpable because to watch NFL football, which is a $9 billion business (and growing), is to suspend the boundaries of what is acceptable human behavior for entertainment purposes.
The changes the league has made to the rules and Goodell's crusade for player safety are as much about preserving the long-term health of the business of pro football as the long-term health of the players. As the cigarette industry learned, lawsuits and health warnings aren't good for business.
It's in this context that the Draconian discipline meted out to the sinful Saints by Goodell has to be weighed. Payton and the Saints were made examples of for the greater good of the league by the Judge Dredd of the NFL (I can picture Goodell in his office yelling, "I am the law!" with Stallone-like conviction.)
The thinking in these parts has gone that since the Saints' punishment was much, much greater than the Patriots', so was their crime. From a humane standpoint there is no comparison. "Bountygate" is infinitely worse than taping opposing teams' signals.
Offering monetary rewards for injuring people is morally reprehensible, totally unethical and a legal landmine.
But from a standpoint of potentially compromising the competitive integrity of the game, Spygate was the greater threat. Players in the NFL get injured all the time, whether it's intentional or not.
Bernard Pollard's hit on Tom Brady in the 2008 season-opener was not the result of a bounty as far as we know, yet it was far more damaging than any blow a team with a bounty program registered in three seasons of dishonorable and disgusting behavior.
When Goodell issued the penalties for Spygate -- the Patriots were fined $250,000 and docked a first-round pick, and coach Bill Belichick was fined $500,000 -- he referenced why he didn't suspend Belichick.
"I specifically considered whether to impose a suspension on Coach Belichick," Goodell wrote in September of 2007. "I have determined not to do so, largely because I believe that the discipline I am imposing of a maximum fine and forfeiture of a first-round draft choice...is in fact more significant and long-lasting, and therefore more effective, than a suspension."
Tell that to Payton and the Saints.
Part of the problem with comparing the bounty situation in New Orleans to Spygate is that you're guessing what you're comparing intentionally trying to injure players to. The league never explained exactly what the Patriots were using the tapes for, and it destroyed them.
That has left more questions than answers and exposed the Patriots to all manner of speculation and conjecture. In what investigation do you destroy evidence that could exonerate the accused?
In his 2010 book, Payton revealed that before his team played the Patriots in 2009, he impersonated Belichick for them. Well, he did a pretty fair Belichick impression with the bounty scandal too.
In his statement explaining the Saints punishment Goodell referenced "integrity of the game," "willful disrespect of the rules" and a violation that "involves a competitive rule." Those were all in play for Spygate, except in that case Belichick wasn't just Payton. He was Payton, Loomis and Williams in one.
In 2010 after the Denver Broncos, then coached by Josh McDaniels, were fined by the league for taping parts of the San Francisco 49ers walkthrough in London, NFL executive vice president and general counsel Jeff Pash said the Broncos case was "obviously different from what we saw in New England where the head coach was actively supervising the activity."
In the end, the Saints' sentence wasn't based on integrity of the game or fair play or even their blatant dishonesty with Goodell. It was about Goodell trying to protect the NFL and its owners from absorbing the hardest, most painful late hit of all -- one to their wallets.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.