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As punishment for his complicity in the New Orleans Saints’ “bounty program,” Saints coach Sean Payton received a one-year ban from the NFL Wednesday. Roger Goodell also banned St. Louis Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams – the Saints’ defensive coordinator from 2009-2011 – indefinitely, Saints GM Mickey Loomis for eight games and assistant coach Joe Vitt for six. The NFL also fined the Saints $500,000 and stripped them of their next two draft picks.
A harsh penalty, to be sure, but what did the Saints expect? They not only violated league rules by encouraging players to injure opponents – they violated the image the NFL tries to sell the public.
And that’s a crime the NFL couldn’t let go under-punished.
The NFL has convinced us all that football, more than any other sport, is a game that speaks to our “values” as Americans. Sunday afternoon and Monday Night Football have become ritualized viewing experiences involving everyone from the very young to the very old.
The NFL wants us to think that not only can we be entertained by football, we can also identify with football. And that loose mental association between our own identities and this televised sport helps the NFL snatch up billions of the fans’ dollars. Marketing, not quality of product, has made the NFL the most profitable league in the world. The NFL understands that to get our wallets they need to go through our “souls,” and they’ve done it.
Of course, this is all a farce. And the only way to preserve a farce is to never do anything that portrays the NFL as anything other than the family-friendly, “American values” ritual Goodell needs to keep everyone rich.
Enter the Saints. More than anything else, the Saints’ bounty program has made the league look bad. Suddenly, its players aren’t hard-working, competitive but fair-minded individuals. Instead, they’re vicious, bloodthirsty thugs who will cut each other down for a little extra cash. Any connection between the NFL and the notion that playing the game right is more important than winning or personal glory is gone.
If the NFL can’t appear wholesome, it won’t sell as many t-shirts. Major League Baseball’s move towards a steroid-free workplace has already put it in direct competition with the NFL ($7.2 billion in 2011 vs. $9.0 billion in 2010 for the NFL) using the same tactic, and scandals like the Saints’ threaten the profit-gap further.
The NFL crippled the Saints because the Saints’ crimes, if left unpunished, could ultimately undo the PR juggernaut the NFL has created and profited mightily from. They did not do so because the Saints “cheated,” because on its surface the Saints’ defensive strategy wouldn’t provide a tactical advantage.
Yes, injuring an opposing quarterback or star wide receiver could conceivably help a team win. But repeatedly going for illegal hits would also increase substantially the risk of getting flagged for illegal hits. And while a big hit can fire up a team, few things so demoralize a defense as a 15-yard penalty giving an offense a new set downs.
Now, compare the bounty program with the Patriots’ “SpyGate” in 2007. The Patriots lost $750,000 and a first-round draft pick for videotaping opposing coaches while they were calling plays.
SpyGate qualifies as “cheating” because it gave New England an ill-gotten edge over other teams. Bounty hunting didn’t really provide such an edge – it just provided an unethical form of motivation for the participating players. Yet the Patriots received the lighter punishment because their violations didn’t compromise the NFL.
Whether fair or not, the NFL had to come down on the Saints. Hard. They had to immediately and decisively say, “Yes, Payton and his team are scumbags. But the rest of the league isn’t like that.” As proof, consider the new rule that all teams must certify each year that no bounty programs exists.
Because they damaged the NFL’s profit-driving “integrity of the game,” the Saints lost their Super Bowl-winning coach for a year, two high-round draft picks and half a million dollars. Such a harsh punishment will likely derail the team for at least a year, all but ensuring their headhunting system doesn’t return any time soon.
It also ensures the team that won a Super Bowl while this system was in place doesn’t get back there any time soon.