Commentary

Mutiny on the bounty

The bravest politician in America can be found in Louisiana

Updated: June 13, 2012, 3:35 PM ET
By Chris Jones | ESPN The Magazine

The bravest politician in America?Edel RodriguezSen. Karen Carter Peterson voted against her hometown Saints to uphold Goodell's punishment.

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WHAT DOES IT mean to be brave? Most of us would see a firefighter run into a burning building and agree that she was brave; most of us would see a soldier jump on a grenade to save the lives of his fellow soldiers and say he was brave too. But bravery isn't always so clear. Sometimes it isn't about life or death. Sometimes bravery is so small that it goes unseen -- those quiet last stands, those moments when somebody, somewhere, chooses courage over convenience. Sometimes, bravery comes down to a choice between two simple words: yes or no.

The National Football League recently decided that purposely hurting an opposing player in exchange for money is the opposite of brave. When the New Orleans Saints' bounty system was exposed, the team was punished with a long series of bans and fines, including the suspension of head coach Sean Payton for the upcoming season. The reaction was not unanimous. "I don't expect that everyone is going to agree all the time, particularly when it involves discipline," commissioner Roger Goodell said. Whether you believe he was right or wrong, you have to admit that Goodell's decision took courage. And yet he's not nearly the most courageous person involved in the Saints scandal. You don't even know her name.

There is one place in America where everyone -- almost everyone, that is -- agreed that Goodell was wrong: the towering Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge. The representatives and senators ensconced inside were so much in agreement, in fact, that they decided to pass a resolution -- House Concurrent Resolution No. 50 -- asking that the league reconsider its decision because "the penalties imposed upon the Saints are too harsh." Rather than, say, working through the state's ongoing budget crisis or continuing efforts to rebuild after Katrina, Louisiana's political leadership produced a resolution that contains the following language: "Whereas, the greatness of the New Orleans Saints in recent years, including the historic and triumphant victory in Super Bowl XLIV in 2010, could not have been achieved without the guidance, dedication and skills of Sean Payton and the entire coaching staff ... "

I know that reads like something that might appear in The Illustrated Guide to Unbelievably Transparent Acts of Pandering, but this all actually happened. Sean Payton is such a dedicated and skilled coach of a team so historic and triumphant that the state government of Louisiana made an unsolicited appeal to the NFL on his behalf. Even more amazing: That resolution passed Louisiana's State Senate at precisely 3:24:29 p.m. on May 14, 2012, by a vote of 28 to 1. The roll shows yeas for Sens. Brown and Long and Peacock and White, on and on, and there, alone among the nays, is a single name: Peterson.

Peterson is state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson. She is a Democrat, serving the people of District 5, in the heart of New Orleans. She chairs the Select Committee on Women and Children, and she also serves on the Hurricane Recovery Select Committee. A graduate of Tulane Law School, state Sen. Peterson has twice been named Legislator of the Year by the Alliance for Good Government. And she was the only Louisiana state senator who saw House Concurrent Resolution No. 50 for what it was.

Roger Goodell has not issued a formal response to the resolution. He hasn't issued an informal one either. Greg Aiello, the league's spokesman, told me: "We understand and appreciate their interest in the Saints. The commissioner's responsibility is to enforce league rules and protect the integrity of the game. That is what he had to do in this case." I am fluent in league spokesman, so let me translate Aiello's statement: This particular resolution is one of the biggest wastes of paper in the history of trees.

What does it mean to be brave? I called state Sen. Peterson's office to talk to her about her vote. She had that pesky budget to debate -- the budget that went undone while Sean Payton's bruises were tended to -- and decided to let her name on that roll do the talking for her. Karen Carter Peterson didn't run into a burning building, and she didn't jump on a grenade. But she said no to the hometown team at a time when we give the hometown team whatever it wants. And in a vote that went 28 to 1, she wasn't afraid to be the one.

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Chris Jones is the back-page columnist for ESPN The Magazine. He is also a Writer at Large for Esquire. Follow him on Twitter @MySecondEmpire.