Commentary

Goodell drives his point home

Harsh penalties for Saints should ensure bounty systems are gone forever

Originally Published: March 21, 2012
By Ashley Fox | ESPN.com

Roger Goodell is not playing.

The NFL commissioner swung his considerable hammer Wednesday and drove home a point no one in the league could possibly miss: Bounty systems can never exist again. That practice is done. And if there was ever any doubt about Goodell's sincerity in promoting player safety, it was erased for good with his shockingly harsh ruling in the New Orleans Saints bounty case.

Goodell absolutely rocked the Saints.

New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton? Gone for the 2012 season, effective April 1.

General manager Mickey Loomis? Gone for the first eight games of the 2012 season, effective after the Saints' final preseason game.

Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt? Gone for the first six games of the 2012 season.

Former New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, now with the St. Louis Rams? Gone indefinitely, at the very least for the next year.

It took courage and major intestinal fortitude for Goodell to paralyze the Saints like he did. Stripping them of Payton is a season-changer. Vitt was his most logical replacement, and now he will be on the curb, too.

Fines and the loss of draft picks are one thing. The Saints got that, too. But taking away Payton for a year, forcing him to stay home, away from his team and the sideline and his coaching staff, that is a killer.

And more is still to come. Goodell hasn't punished the players involved just yet. He will. He wisely let Wednesday be about punishing the grown-ups who are supposed to know better, the ones who organized the bounty program, helped to fund it, and then repeatedly lied about it and tried to cover it up.

You don't lie to Goodell. Not anymore.

With his ruling, Goodell effectively ensured defensive players never again will collect money to financially reward teammates for intentionally hurting opposing players. The Saints brazenly did it for three seasons, from 2009 through 2011, even when they knew the league was on to them. They had bounties out on Kurt Warner and Brett Favre in the playoffs, and they had bounties out last season on Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton.

What apparently galled Goodell and prompted him to lay the lumber to the Saints was how arrogant Payton and Loomis were. According to the NFL, they knew what was going on. They never tried to stop it. Payton encouraged it.

And they lied about it, tried to cover it up and deliberately maintained it after owner Tom Benson demanded that it stop.

Talk about hitting the trifecta.

"A combination of elements made this matter particularly unusual and egregious," Goodell said in a statement. "When there is targeting of players for injury and cash rewards over a three-year period, the involvement of the coaching staff, and three years of denials and willful disrespect of the rules, a strong and lasting message must be sent that such conduct is totally unacceptable and has no place in the game."

Message received.

Payton can now spend the next 10 months thinking about how he turned the Saints into a disgrace. New Orleans' magical run to the Super Bowl XLIV title is now tainted. All the good Payton did for the city of New Orleans and for long-suffering Saints fans? Ruined.

All because Payton thought he was above the rules and that he wouldn't get caught, that he could get his "ducks in a row" and lie his way out of trouble. He couldn't. And now he will sit and watch from afar.

The head coach is ultimately the CEO of the team, and now every head coach in the NFL will have to be hands-on in the policing of the locker room. Each will have no choice but to demand that a bounty system doesn't exist and to put in place a system of checks and balances to make sure one doesn't, because no one wants to lose his job for a year. No one wants to be Sean Payton.

Goodell also sent a very strong message to all the players in the league. He isn't popular, particularly with defensive players. They think he is too heavy-handed with the fines. They think he has legislated the game so that it unfairly protects quarterbacks and receivers.

This won't change that perception, but it will show the players that the commissioner isn't discriminating against them. He will pop coaches and front-office executives, too. He is trying to protect the integrity of the game, and he is trying to protect the players, whether they want it or not.

Intentionally hurting other players and paying out cash bonuses for doing so is wrong. It is so 1985. It might have been the norm in one era, but it will not be in this one. Goodell ensured that.

"Let me be clear," Goodell said. "There is no place in the NFL for deliberately seeking to injure another player, let alone offering a reward for doing so. Any form of bounty is incompatible with our commitment to create a culture of sportsmanship, fairness and safety. Programs of this kind have no place in our game, and we are determined that bounties will no longer be a part of the NFL."

This is Roger Goodell's NFL, and when he talks about "protecting the shield," it is not lip service. He is serious. Just ask Sean Payton and the Saints.