One year ago, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell steered the league through a contentious labor stoppage despite his detractors. On Wednesday, he continued to craft his legacy as a stern, no-nonsense leader, through punishments meted out to members of the Saints for their participation in bounty and pay-for-performance programs. Goodell made it clear that the integrity of the NFL is paramount to all.
Penalty with a purpose
Two themes underlie the commissioner's statements. From an internal perspective, a bounty program weakens competitive balance. From an external perspective, it erodes public confidence in the league. When terms such as "bounties" and "cart-offs" circulate through news reports, it tarnishes the game's image and severely undermines the credibility of the sport.
I saw firsthand how important this issue was to the NFL as an executive with the Packers in 2007. I remember being questioned about comments our defensive players had made to the media about rewarding our defensive linemen with DVDs if we held Adrian Peterson to fewer than 100 yards in one game.
The NFL caught wind of those comments and inquired about them. When the league used the word "bounty" in our call, it shocked me. We were talking about some DVDs from Best Buy! But because the comments specifically concerned Peterson, who was coming off a record-breaking performance the week before, the league felt a need to ask questions. There was no punishment, but a discussion with the players involved in the incident was necessary.
Player health and safety is at the forefront for the NFL. Hundreds of players have recently filed concussion lawsuits against the league, and scores of others are feeling the physical and mental effects from their playing days. Through the new collective bargaining agreement, the NFL has attempted to lessen the physical risks to those playing the game. A bounty program vitiates these recent measures.
The discipline sends ripples throughout the NFL. One team is without its Super Bowl-winning head coach for an entire season. Another club lost its newly hired defensive coordinator. Individual players will face stiff penalties.
Where is the NFLPA?
Although discipline for players involved in the bounty scheme has not been announced, it will be interesting to see how the NFL Players Association weighs in. It has made player health and safety a top priority in recent negotiations and has harped on this theme for more than a year.
Reports of players acting with intent to injure fellow players will not mesh well with the message. Will the players tie their defense to unwavering loyalty to their coaches, following their instructions as they have been trained to do since childhood? The "my coach made me do it" defense may surface here soon.
Impact on Brees
Despite his tweet of support for coach Sean Payton, Drew Brees just received significant leverage in his contract negotiations. Since being saddled with the franchise tag, Brees has expressed his discontent about going into this season without a long-term contract. To compound his unhappiness, he now loses his primary playcaller.
Brees' negotiations with the Saints have been curious. His agent, Tom Condon, has completed two contracts for Peyton Manning but was unable to consummate one for Brees. Both of Manning's contracts will serve as data points, but there were obvious tensions in reaching common ground, even before the revelation of the Saints' misconduct.
At this juncture, the Saints desperately need good news. Although nothing can truly remedy the sting from the NFL's punishment, a long-term deal for Brees will go a long way toward appeasing the fan base and Brees himself. Since general manager Mickey Loomis' suspension does not take effect until after the preseason, he has ample time to conduct negotiations with Brees. Loomis could draw a nice boost of goodwill heading into his eight-game suspension with the completion of a contract for Brees.