As the world reels from the "incredibly harsh" (the quotes are used to denote sarcasm) punishment the NFL handed down this week -- Sean Payton banned for one year! From coaching the Saints! -- there are, as you might guess, a few points slipping through the cracks of this story as the world looks for the snitch because snitches get stitches.
I was going to put a clip of the Happy Endings episode where they say that, but turns out you can't get that clip. So I settled for that picture of a scantily-clad Elisha Cuthbert.
On that note: Jeremy Shockey is totally the snitch. But that's not one of the points that need. to be made about the the "shocking" "story" that NFL players were paid to hurt other players. There are other points that are not being picked up on.
Points such as the NFL knew about this and didn't do nothin' for three years.
Here's where I get that from: Commissioner Goodell's statement supporting the "harsh" punishment:
"A combination of elements made this matter particularly unusual and egregious,” NFL Commissioner Roger 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.”
Hmmm? Say that again? Who were the Saints denying this to... for three years?
It was the league, in case I need to spell it out for you; they say as much in their official statement, noting that the league made "repeated inquiries" about the bounty program over three years.
The league, in fact, had closed the investigation earlier. Because knocking two legendary quarterbacks out of the league was not enough evidence that something was amiss.
But remember! The league takes very seriously the safety of its players.
Which brings up point number two: The goal of intentionally hurting other players was not against league rules and was not why the suspensions were issued.
From that same article I linked to above:
The Saints’ bounty pool violates an NFL rule prohibiting non-contract bonuses.
Wait, what now? While the NFL made a lot of noise about player safety (a lot of noise it's not making about, say, requiring anticoncussion helmets), the collective bargaining agreement (apparently?) does not prohibit trying to injure another player. There's lots of talk about violating the "bounty rule" (including this article about how the Packers might have violated it by trying to hold opposing runners under certain yardage) a Google search for the actual text of this "bounty rule" turned up nothing.
So I went to the actual text of the collective bargaining agreement. Which does not contain the word "bounty." In fact, I was unable to find any specific clause of the CBA that actually prohibits trying to injure another player. Under "Player Security" (Article 49), the teams are allowed to mandate how players groom themselves. That was it.
If there IS a "bounty rule" out there, I can't find the text of it.
Point Three: Saints ownership knew about the bounty program that may or may not have been intended to avoid injury, and did not do much if anything to stop it.
The obviously-misnomered Saints ownership emailed this statement:
We offer our sincere apology and take full responsibility for these serious violations... It has always been the goal of the New Orleans Saints to create a model franchise and to impact our league in a positive manner. There is no place for bounties in our league and we reiterate our pledge that this will never happen again.
But the NFL official statement released said that
The NFL’s extensive investigation established the existence of an active bounty program on the Saints during the 2009, 2010, and 2011 seasons in violation of league rules, a deliberate effort to conceal the program’s existence from league investigators, and a clear determination to maintain the program despite express direction from Saints ownership that it stop as well as ongoing inquiries from the league office.
Raise your hand if you are picturing a Saints' front-office guy leaning into Payton and Williams' offices and saying "Hey! Stop that bounty! Wink! Wink! Nudge! Nudge! Also, here's your bonuses for making the Super Bowl after you crippled Brett Favre!"
In fact, Sean Payton specifically assigned a coach to monitor Gregg Williams, who the NFL said Payton didn't have much confidence in. And as for the Saints' efforts to end the program?
Saints owner Tom Benson notified [General Manger] Loomis in January 2012 prior to the team’s participation in the playoffs that the league’s investigation had been reopened. Mr. Benson reiterated his position that a bounty program was unacceptable and instructed Mr. Loomis to ensure that if a bounty program existed at the Saints it would stop immediately. By his own admission, Mr. Loomis responded to this direction by making only cursory inquiries of Coaches Payton and Williams. He never issued instructions to end the bounty program to either the coaching staff or the players.
The league found specifically there was no evidence to suggest Benson knew about the program, a finding that is easy to understand if you completely ignore the fact that the NFL told Benson it was investigating such a program. "Hiding your head in the sand" is an effective way to avoid punishment, if you are an ostrich or NFL team owner.
Not that it matters anyway, because
Point Four: Fines and on-the-field penalties don't stop the behavior.
The league report notes that
In each of the 2009-2011 seasons, the Saints were one of the top five teams in the league in roughing the passer penalties. In 2009 and 2011, the Saints were also in the top five teams in unnecessary roughness penalties; in 2010, the Saints ranked sixth in the category. In the January 16, 2010 divisional playoff game against the Arizona Cardinals, Saints defensive players were assessed $15,000 in fines for fouls committed against opposing players. The following week, in the NFC Championship Game against the Minnesota Vikings, Saints defensive players were assessed $30,000 in fines for four separate illegal hits, several of which were directed against quarterback Brett Favre.
Here's a shot from a 2010 Cardinals-Saints game:
The 6 penalties for 44 yards, as well as some player fines, the Saints were assessed against the Cardinals did not dissuade the Saints from targeting Brett Favre the next week:
Of COURSE they don't stop the behavior. The median NFL player salary is $770,000, which means that 1/2 of all players make more than that. A $30,000 fine -- that was actually several players' fines -- is 3% of that salary. Players get 17 paychecks in a season. If you make $770,000, you get $45,294 per check. A $30,000 fine is less than one week's pay. Players get in excess of $20,000 per game in the playoffs. A $5,000 fine per player is 1/4 of that week's pay.
In college football, when teams misbehave, past players and coaches are rewarded with NFL contracts (Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart, Pete Carroll at the Seahawks) while the present students are punished for stuff they didn't do by, say, being banned from postseason play.
In the NFL, even that level of punishment does not exist. Players are fined a nominal sum of money and teams have two draft picks taken away from them. Sean Payton will not be paid his $6,000,000 salary this year? He'll obviously have to struggle to live off any savings he has from his prior years of salary in excess of $4,000,000 per year. The Saint lose two second-round draft picks in each of the next two years? That might make an impact, if they couldn't trade for more and/or sign free agents. The Saints were fined $500,000? The Saints had revenues of $261,000,000 last year alone. They were fined 0.1% of their 1-year revenues and no, I didn't misplace that decimal point.
What would make an impact is to ban coaches and offending players for life (and require that contracting partners, like ESPN and Sports Illustrated refuse to hire them), but even Gregg Williams, who orchestrated similar programs at Buffalo and Washington and who is the primary reason Tim Tebow is now a New York Jet:
isn't out for life. And what would make an impact is to ban the team from postseason play -- because then the players and coaches would have something real to lose, and the fans would care.
As it is, nothing's going to change, and the penalties are neither severe nor shocking.