Commentary

Questioning Roger Goodell, Saints

In this murky bounty case, what and who is being protected?

Updated: August 7, 2012, 3:15 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPN.com

At first glance, the New Orleans Saints' defiance in the face of the bounty scandal punishments looked like arrogance heaped atop amoral behavior. And that enormous poster of Sean Payton's squinting mug that the Saints team labors under during training camp at their practice facility, the one with the words "Do Your Job" under Payton's hard-eyed visage -- well, that seems a bit much, too. Same goes for the team's decision to leave an empty seat on the team bus and plane all season for their living, breathing but now-suspended head coach.

[+] EnlargeRoger Goodell
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarIf Roger Goodell is indeed willing to cut a deal in the bounty case, it raises questions about what, exactly, he's protecting.

When the bounty scandal broke, many folks bought the NFL's early narrative that the league had abundant proof of what went down -- especially after the release of the sickening Gregg Williams audio, and the Saints defensive coordinator's subsequent apology. Commissioner Roger Goodell had to clean up the league, given the grave news about concussions, right? Weren't the Saints' yelps of protest just more overheated, self-involved behavior of a team that has no perspective -- players condoning a system that encouraged "cart off" hits or going after the heads and knees of other players, players fighting a commissioner who seems intent on protecting them better than they're protecting themselves? Goodell couldn't have asked for better footing if he wrote the script himself.

But now that Goodell seems to be offering Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma and perhaps some other players a sort of domino-effect settlement deal -- news that Goodell disputed over the weekend, but Vilma's attorneys seemed to confirm in court documents filed Monday -- the back-and-forth has raised questions. Is the commissioner blinking first? And what does that say about the strength of the NFL's case?

Vilma, who is suing the NFL for defamation and seeking an injunction that puts a hold on his suspension, has said all along that the NFL's conclusions were built on shaky evidence. And departed Saints defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, who now plays for Green Bay, has charged the same. Hargrove has insisted that that isn't his voice on a video that the NFL has held up as part of the limited proof it's presented that the pay-to-injure system went on. The NFL's response has essentially been, "Is too." And that Goodell's judgment can be trusted.

"When you reward players for injuring other opponents that's a bounty," Goodell told the media Saturday in Canton, Ohio. "That's not pay for performance, that's a bounty. And that's what the players and, I believe, [Saints linebackers] coach [Joe] Vitt said occurred. And that's what our evidence indicates."

Of course, the NFL also had to admit its original assertion that Vitt's name appeared on a ledger promising $5,000 toward a bounty on Brett Favre was a mistake. And Goodell would be more convincing if Vilma's argument that the league's lack of transparency about its investigation didn't ring so true. Goodell has never laid out the whole case publicly, which naturally makes you wonder what other horrors could be hidden in the interest of both the league and the players?

And although this facet of the case has been far, far less talked about, it should be harped on more: Goodell has never really given a satisfactory explanation for the NFL's delay in punishing the Saints from the first moment it knew a bounty system might be going on during the 2009 season. The NFL says it privately warned the Saints to stop the practice first. Which begs the question "Why?" if wrong is wrong. Then Goodell finally came down hard on them in March because the Saints smugly ignored the message for three years. What the hell took so long?

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans Saints
Gerald Herbert/AP PhotoBecause of his suspension, Sean Payton has been relegated to a banner at Saints camp.

Were the shock-and-awe penalties Goodell finally handed down purely for crimes against football humanity, or for crimes against Goodell? Does anything irk a get-tough authority figure more than having his edicts ignored?

Just asking …

This case has always felt like a high-stakes game of three-dimensional chess in which the competing agendas of the NFL, the player's union and the punished offenders are playing out simultaneously.

There's the NFL trying to maintain its status as the most bulletproof sports business in the world even as its brutality problem and issues like players' post-career suicides and dementia force a serious reassessment of the sport.

There's the NFLPA, which Goodell always seems three or four moves ahead of, tacitly acknowledging it had its butt handed to it in the recent CBA negotiations when it tried but failed to curb Goodell's power to be judge, jury and executioner when meting out punishment.

Then there's Vilma and the other suspended players and coaches, who are driven by self-interest but also taking the fall for what many, many players admit has been a widespread league practice.

Regardless of what happens next, the football implications for the Saints are clear.

The Saints' franchise and many followers are riding outrage of biblical proportion. The suspended players and coaches are being treated as martyrs in New Orleans -- especially Payton -- and to expect anything less of a fan base in a state that has long set vivid new standards for political chicanery was probably na´ve all along. The team has decided the best way to make bricks out of straw in this whole unsettled mess is to channel their righteous indignation into an angry crusade that starts right now, right here in training camp, and goes something like this: If you thought bounties made us a scourge of the league before, you haven't seen anything yet.

Saints quarterback Drew Brees even said something the other day that seems prime fodder to be abbreviated and turned into the Saints' unofficial battle cry.

Brees said that when he finds himself at certain junctures in a practice, he can literally still hear Payton's voice in his head, and he thinks to himself, "What would Sean do?"

[+] EnlargeSean Payton and Drew Brees
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesSean Payton is still in the Saints' thoughts, but Drew Brees is in their faces every day at practice.

W.W.S.D.

Brees immediately became the most fascinating man in the bounty scandal other than Goodell the minute all the suspended players and coaches disappeared. Until now, Brees' reputation has been unblemished.

But since Bountygate, Brees finds himself finessing two strands in this saga, too: How does he simultaneously wear the white hat while also leading an alleged "outlaw" team that is vowing to embark on a vengeance-fueled run versus the rest of the league?

Tight end Jimmy Graham says Brees is more involved than ever.

Brees recently made some pointed remarks to Sports Illustrated that nobody trusts Goodell.

He's also acknowledged the 2012 Saints have "a chip on our shoulder."

For now, those seem to be a few of the answers the Saints get when they ask themselves W.W.S.D.?

But for the rest of us, there's also this: If Vilma, New Orleans' starting middle linebacker, is indeed being offered a halving of his suspension as ESPN has reported, will he decide it's the best deal he'll get and grab it? Or is his stated goal of clearing his good name non-negotiable?

Either way, Goodell could find himself shoved to a crossroads, too.

If Goodell backs down on his punishment for questionable reasons -- be it to preserve his personal power as commissioner, or to keep the preponderance of the NFL's evidence against the Saints hidden rather than let it come out in a court case -- it will look like principle didn't drive his punishment decisions. Just PR.

Lawyers have a term of art for compromises that warring sides sometimes reach. It's called an "elegant solution." But the phrase won't deserve to apply to this case. What really happened will remain far too murky. And striking an imperfect truce will just look like one more backroom pay-to-play caper heaped atop the rest.

Johnette Howard is an award-winning writer and author who previously worked for Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and Newsday. She contributes general sports columns to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com.

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