Seven observations on bounty scandal
The other shoe dropped on the Saints on Wednesday. Having levied discipline on the Saints’ organization, coaches and general manager a month ago, commissioner Roger Goodell handed out the player penalties, suspending four players with amounts ranging from three games to an entire year.
Here are some thoughts:
1. We knew the punishments would be severe, as they were with the Saints’ coaches and administrators. The behavior strikes at two prominent initiatives of Goodell: (1) competitive integrity, and (2) player health and safety. With more than 60 concussion lawsuits -- and more than 1,200 plaintiffs -- lining up against the NFL and head injuries a focus since the 2009 Congressional hearings, the timing of these findings could not have been worse for the NFL.
2. Goodell referred to the four suspended players as having “leadership positions” on the Saints (although Anthony Hargrove's penalty seemed more about being untruthful and evasive), indicating that other players were more followers than leaders. I had wondered whether the players would use the “my coach made me do it” defense: They had been taught since childhood to obey their coach and were doing as told. That defense may have worked for some of the players being investigated but not for the four suspended -- Hargove (now with Green Bay), Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith and Scott Fujita (now with Cleveland).
3. Although the new 10-year collective bargaining agreement was negotiated between the NFL and the NFLPA last July, the relationship is still fractured. The lack of coordination and communication between the two sides here is a microcosm of the mistrust that did not subside with the new CBA and has continued through the HGH testing issue as well. We presumed the delay in announcing player discipline stemmed from the NFL's receiving input from the NFLPA. That input appears to have been either ignored or declined, as the union released a statement condemning the lack of evidence from the league.
4. The NFLPA is in a tough spot here: It has to represent the players being targeted as well as the players who are being suspended for doing the targeting. In theory, that puts them at odds with players such as Brett Favre, Kurt Warner, Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton, whom the NFL report found to be put in harm’s way through the bounty system.
5. Goodell’s power appears to be stronger than ever regarding player conduct. The NFLPA had ample opportunity to address the fact that the commissioner had power to act as both judge and jury about such discipline. The union was unable to change that power in negotiations leading to the CBA last August. Goodell and the NFL made it a priority to hold on to that power, and they were successful.
6. Whether intentionally or fortuitously, Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma did some valuable restructuring of their contracts prior to these penalties. Suspensions affect a player’s salary, not previously paid bonuses. On March 1, Smith converted more than $7 million of his salary into bonus -- leaving a minimum salary of $825,000 -- to lower his cap number. Thus, instead of being docked four games of a salary of $7.1 million, or $1.67 million lost, Smith is being docked four games of a salary of $825,000, or $194,000 lost, saving Smith more than $1.48 million.
Vilma converted $1 million of his previous $2.6 million salary -- as part of a $2.2 million pay reduction -- to a signing bonus, now keeping that $1 million from lost pay due to suspension. Both players are certainly lucky the Saints needed cap room.
7. As to if the suspended players will appeal, their hope is to appeal to someone other than the commissioner, and they are searching for ways to do so. Assuming, however, they end up in front of Goodell, there still is potential value in appealing. Although many felt that the appeals of Sean Payton, Mickey Loomis and Joe Vitt were futile, Goodell allowed for potential reduction of the financial penalties -- though not suspension time -- if they “embraced change” during their time away. This is a Goodell trademark: to place a carrot in front of the suspended person to incentivize change in behavior and remorse.
Unfortunately for the Saints and the NFL, this matter is not receding quietly into the background. There will be more to come, and, of course, there will be lawyers. Stay tuned.