Commentary

NFL: Mutiny and the Bounty

Updated: March 6, 2012, 10:34 AM ET
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

Fined? Suspended? Drawn and quartered?

What's the punishment for waking a sleepwalker?

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Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesJonathan Vilma, left, Gregg Williams and Roman Harper confer before Super Bowl XLIV.

We'll find out when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell drops the weight of his office on the New Orleans Saints.

By now you've read the headlines that Gregg Williams, the soon-to-be-ex-defensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams, supervised a rewards program for headhunting while with the Saints. And the Redskins. And the Bills. Players and coaches pooled a little extra cash every week to pay a bounty on big hits and sacks and interceptions and fumbles stripped or recovered -- and for sending opposing players off the field broken.

This is in no way unusual.

The game incentivizes -- in fact fetishizes -- these very things. Why do you think they hand out all those helmet stickers to college players? Or take the Pee Wees out for ice cream after the game? Incentivized violence is what football is. In our collective dream state, however, we assume all this mayhem falls into the category of jock cliché known as "clean, hard play."

It does not. So the obvious question for NFL investigators and the bloodhound sporting press is whether or not the Saints' bounty program encouraged dirty play. Did it reward an intent to injure?

But the real question, the one being asked in a corner office on Park Avenue right now, is how much does this hurt the NFL's image?

That's the calculation at the tip of Mr. Goodell's pencil this morning.

What's Gregg Williams' punishment for not realizing he's in show business? What's a fit penalty for reminding the audience of reality? For intruding on the dreamer's dream? For harshing our national fantasy league buzz?

For a walking tour of the slaughterhouse floor?

Such is the puzzle confronting football's Great Blond Father. Surely the commissioner's discipline has to exceed that brought down upon the New England Patriots for mere espionage. Doesn't it?

I expect swift, loud, visible justice. Then complete institutional silence.

Because the whole sordid mess raises a tangle of uncomfortable ongoing questions. How widespread is the practice? How did this come to the league's attention? A disgruntled participant? An outraged opponent? Can someone pin a specific injury on a Saints bounty hunter? Did it shorten or end a career? Are there lawsuits coming because we had an investigation? Or did we get an investigation because there are lawsuits coming?

Did the league act because it thought the press would get it? Is the NFL acting now because it can hang it on one guy and one team rather than cop to headhunting league-wide? Is this all cynical damage control or earnest corporate truth and reconciliation? Ask yourself why the league made this public. A 50,000-page investigation? Seriously?

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Tom Hauck/Getty ImagesThe Saints went after QB Brett Favre in January 2010.

For the league to have bothered investigating at all, much less at Pentagon Papers length, would that not imply the defensive incentives were for something other than clean, hard hits? And that Williams and his bosses and the Saints were rewarding dirty play?

This is a public relations disaster. The Saints were the NFL feel-good story of the past decade, beloved by fans and souvenir jersey buyers everywhere. Drew Brees! Bourbon Street! Po' boys! Who dat!

Conversely, when the Spygate story dropped, everyone already hated cold, gray New England and cold, gray Bill Belichick, so what the hell. It was like fining East Germany.

But this? Now the NFL's on morning television trying to explain itself to Matt Lauer.

And the rest of us have to reconcile our love of the game with what the game asks of its players. We have to remake our studied ignorance about the true costs of professional football and the darkness at its heart.

Fines. Suspensions. Firings. Lost draft selections. Expect an avalanche of Roger Goodell to fall on the New Orleans Saints. Gregg Williams will -- perhaps even rightly -- be made an example of.

Banned? Banished? Broken on the rack?

What does it cost to put a shine back on the NFL logo? What's a fair price for the public's briefly ruined illusions?

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can email him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.

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