Commentary

Saints still won't take responsibility

Former player Steve Gleason is alone in expressing regret over bounty scandal

Originally Published: August 22, 2012
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

Thank you, Steve Gleason, for at least providing some sensible perspective on the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal that has rocked the NFL. You said something that should've been stated months ago. You gave credence to the fact that the team's bounty program shouldn't have been so easily dismissed by current players. You also did something that shouldn't be underestimated: You showed that it's OK for somebody tied to that team to take issue with how the Saints conducted business.

Gleason is the former New Orleans special teams standout who recently spoke to HBO's "Real Sports" for an interview that aired Tuesday night. One topic of the piece was Gleason's ongoing battle with Lou Gehrig's Disease (ALS) after his career ended in 2008. It's a compelling story, but the aspect that made headlines is his attitude toward the bounty scandal. Gleason was the subject of with the documentary that ultimately exposed startling comments by former New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams prior to the Saints' playoff loss to San Francisco in January. That speech -- during which Williams basically exhorted his players to injure certain 49ers -- was the most glaring proof in the league's decision to punish the Saints for the bounty program.

[+] EnlargeSteve Gleason
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesSteve Gleason was a special teams demon and fan favorite during his seven seasons with New Orleans.

Gleason's role in all this is interesting because he actually was appalled by Williams' words. He told "Real Sports" that "when (Williams) specified the other players' injuries, that to me was over the line." HBO acknowledged initially misquoting Gleason when he talked about the reaction in the room -- he said he was disturbed that nobody in his immediate group was shocked by the speech, while "Real Sports" originally made it sound as if he was bothered by the players' lack of reaction -- but the comment was clarified before the interview aired in its entirety, and it really isn't a major issue anyway. Gleason had a problem with Williams' words. That's all we need to know.

It's been clear for months that more of his former teammates should've had a similar reaction. The foaming-at-the-mouth vitriol that Williams spewed that day should've made Saints players feel as if the coach had gone over the top. The problem is that too many of them thought nothing was wrong with the environment Williams was stoking. They'd become tone deaf to the very culture NFL commissioner Roger Goodell wants to sanitize.

Ever since the bounty story went public, all we've heard from Saints players are gripes, outright denials and constant attempts to paint Goodell as a dictator unfairly persecuting them. They believe Goodell has clearly abused his disciplinary power -- among other things, he's banned Williams indefinitely and issued one-year suspensions to head coach Sean Payton and linebacker Jonathan Vilma -- and they've all but claimed the bounty program never existed. Star quarterback Drew Brees has complained so much about the matter that he'd lead you to believe the league had a vendetta against the Saints. In Brees' eyes, there's no way the beloved representatives of "Who Dat Nation" could be culpable for everything the NFL has alleged.

The nice thing about Gleason's comments -- even after he had a portion of them corrected -- is that they boiled the issue down to its most basic level. Regardless of whether you believe Saints players received money for trying to hurt opponents, you have to assume their sheer silence about Williams' infamous speech speaks volumes. At its core, this story always has been about what's right and wrong in the NFL. We seem to have forgotten that ever since it's become an unrelenting legal fight over how much actual proof Goodell unearthed before battering the Saints' organization.

It's as if Saints players want us to ignore that: 1) The NFL spent three years investigating the matter; 2) Goodell told the Saints to shut down the program after initially learning about it; 3) Payton, Williams and general manager Mickey Loomis all confessed that this stuff was happening on their watch and; 4) they lied to Goodell about dealing with it. There's almost certainly no way Goodell would've created this much drama without his evidence being strong. You also have to assume his reluctance to reveal more proof has plenty to do with not exposing the sources who cooperated with the process. Besides, the admissions of higher-ups in the organization alone make it hard to believe players weren't involved in what amounts to a player-incentive program.

[+] EnlargeSteve Gleason
AP Photo/New Orleans Saints, Alex RestrepoGleason isn't just some bit player in Saints history. He's immortalized outside the Superdome for his blocked punt in the franchise's emotional return
to New Orleans in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina.

Saints players should at least be willing to concede that much. They can't honestly expect us to think Goodell and his investigators would confuse a couple hundred dollars for a forced fumble with a couple thousand for a cart-off. I get that it's difficult to watch respected players such as Vilma and ex-Saint Scott Fujita have their reputations sullied. But it's also hard to think many people who don't bleed black and gold are buying what the Saints are selling.

That's even less likely now that Gleason has spoken out. This obviously wasn't easy for him, evidenced by how quickly he had HBO clarify his remarks before the story aired. (The network claims Gleason's slurred speech, a symptom of ALS, affected the subtitling of his words.) Previously, Gleason wasn't happy when the documentary filmmaker, Sean Pamphilon, released audio tapes of Williams' speech to the media (Gleason claimed he had exclusive rights to the content). The last thing Gleason likely wanted was to hurt the organization that employed him and supported his efforts to heighten awareness for ALS. He's one of the most popular former players in New Orleans.

There's also the possibility that Gleason feared what his words might do to his brethren. Even after the news about the bounty program broke, many players around the league blasted Saints players who anonymously assisted Goodell's investigation. The fundamental thinking was that anybody who had a problem with the bounties should've spoken up when the program actually existed and doing so after the fact made them guilty of snitching.

So even though Gleason stumbled into a minor controversy, at least he pushed this story into a more sensible place with his candor. The Saints can claim Goodell's evidence is flimsy, and the league can swear it has all the evidence it needs to issue such harsh punishment. The bigger question, however, is whether the Saints lost their collective moral compass before Goodell brought his hammer down on the franchise. No matter how Gleason wants to phrase his words, that's exactly what seems to have happened.

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