Apple's Seedlings


The NFL has shown once again that it is as toothless in enforcing its own rules as other sports organizations (such as the NCAA) are.  Some may maintain that the penalties the NFL gave the New Orleans Saints for having a "bounty" system was punishment enough.  I maintain that it failed in its two major objectives:  to correct injustices which have been done and to ensure that the same kind of injustices do not occur in the future.  Let us examine the situation. 

In the week of March 19, 2012, the National Football League announced the penalties to be assessed upon the New Orleans Saints for "bounty" infractions.  A bounty was defined for this purpose as a payment to a Saints player for maiming a preselected opponent to the point where that opponent could not participate in the ensuing play.  The two principle kinds of injuries to be inflicted were apparently "knock-downs" (or "knock-outs") in which the player left the game for at least one play and "cart-offs" where the player was helped off the field and transported for medical attention. 

The bounties were paid from a fund formed by contributions from the players--the same players who took money out from it when they hurt a designated opponent.  It was administered by the Defensive Coordinator, Gregg Williams.  The fund was apparently known to General Manager Mickey Loomis, Head Coach Sean Payton, and Assistant Head Coach Joe Vitt. The general manager and coaches allowed the fund and bounty policy to continue even though it was clearly and explicitly against the NFL rules.  Further, the NFL had heard in 2010 that there might be something wrong in New Orleans and told the Saints to investigate and to stop any and all improprieties. 

The general manager was suspended for eight games--that is for half a regular season--without pay.  The assistant head coach was suspended without pay for six games, two games short of half a season.  The head coach was suspended without pay for all duties from April 1 to the following March 31.  The defensive  coordinator who administered the bounty fund was suspended without pay for an indefinite period, but with the proviso that his status will be reviewed in a year and he could be reinstated at that time--if he is a good boy in the meantime and cooperates with the NFL. 

The Saints as a team will forfeit second round draft choices in 2012 and 2013.  They will also have to pay a fine of half a million dollars--less than the pay of one of their better players for one game.  Penalties will presumably be forthcoming for the players who participated in the bounty program. 

It seems most of those reporting on the NFL assessment of penalties have a very low opinion
of the NFL.  The penalties are more than trivial, true, but are hardly the "hammer" that some have described.  It will be a little more difficult for the Saints to win games (including playoff
games) and the "line" on the Saints winning the Super Bowl in the next couple of years will likely be reduced.  But the penalties are hardly "crippling" by any method of assessing them, unlike the tactics that the players used on the field.  The Saints could still well win it all in the next year or two. 

If you or I were to offer or take money to injure someone, we would be spending a significant
portion of our future viewing the world through iron bars.  This is considered a very serious crime and penalties are substantial--unless, of course, you are a sports organization or player.  Most prosecuters leave it to sports organizations to police themselves.  It is hardly surprising that they do not do a very good job. 

One commentator spoke of the "harshness" of the NFL rulings and mused that every NFL club
would hold meetings to tell staff and players to avoid this kind of thing.  I can see those meetings being held, but not the way envisioned.  The real message at these meetings as I read it would be more like, "Be circumspect, but if you are caught, hang your head and apologize.  Any penalties we get will be worth the risk.  And be glad that those penalties will be imposed from the NFL rather than from prosecutors."  And, indeed, the penalties seem small compared o the infractions.

The point of any penalty system should be "correction."  Wrongs have been done and the issue his how to repair those wrongs and how to see that the situation does not allow those wrongs to happen again.  "Punishment" may be one way to address this, but it has been shown over and over that it--by itself--is not as effective as we would like.  Other forms of "correction" are also usually needed. 

For example, why not vacate any game in which it can be shown that the Saints intentionally injured or tried to injure an opponent?  One reason for vacating a game would be to adjust for a game which was won by subterfuge.  More importantly, a game could be vacated even if its outcome did not depend on a rules violation.  If there were major infractions during a game, the "victory" is not deserved. 

A vacated game would be a loss for the Saints, but it would be a loss as usual for any opponent who originally lost it.  Suppose that it can be shown, for example, that the Saints tried to injure Farve in the 2009 Conference Championship game.  The Vikings lost that game and would continue to be conference runner-up.  They would not be considered to have won a game they didn't win.  But the Saints win would be vacated and recorded as a loss.  The same condition could apply to the Super Boal--there would be no Super Bowl winner that year. 

It might be even better to vacate all games played in a year in which a severe violation persisted all season like the Saints bounty system was in force.  This could result in the unusual situation where a team played and lost in the Super Bowl without the record showing it winning any regular season or playoff games.  This principle could carry over to the players to the point where salary negotiations, competition for playing time, and even post-season and post-career recognitions might be affected.  We note, for example, that the excellence of Pete Rose on the ballfield was not enough to overcome his violation of baseball's rules. 

Loss of draft picks are another way of "correcting" a team which has left the rails.  The loss of one second-round draft pick in each of two years hurts some, but is hardly a strong message.  If the NFL really meant to punish the Saints, revocation of all draft picks--every round--for the two years would do a much better job.  Similarly, a fine of half a million dollars is laughable.  Any club could meet that trivially by endorsing "Argoyles, the official socks of the _____ _____."  A fine 100 times as large as half a million might have a chance of making some teams sit up and take notice, especially if it costs them bidding room for their desired free agent. 

And what about the players?  I read one commentator report that he thought that the players would not get hit with heavy penalties because they were only doing what the coaches were telling them.  Whether or not players were instrumental in the development of the bounty fund, those who contributed to it and who withdrew from it have responsibility for their acts.  They should be held to that responsibility.  Every cent taken from the fund should be given to the NFL to publicize the terrible nature of the bounty plan--and perhaps other things the NFL finds objectionable such as PEDs.  Additional fines should be imposed as seen as necessary so that no player will have benefited financially from this policy.  Other penalties could be imposed such as to restrict the total playing time that a player could spend on the field during a game or a season, fines, and salary reductions. 

Any player who actively participated in the plan should have to pay a stiff price for doing something he knew to be wrong.  But how about other players on the team who might claim they new nothing about the bounty cache?  Would it be fair to players who were not involved to suffer the team penalties that are imposed on violators?  I claim that it is proper.  These "innocents" are part of the team.  If the team wins, they get the benefits of winning (even if they spend all their time on the bench).  By the same token, if members of the team commit violations of the rules, all team members must take the consequences of the actions of their teammates.  In a team sport, there is no good way to separate the actions of individual team members from the team. 

But there is another issue here as well.  It doesn't make sense--at least not to me--that some team members could be unaware of misconduct of this nature by their teammates.  It seems to me that it would take a very special kind of selective memory to fail to recognize unsportmanship as pronounced as this was.  So I claim that as members of the team, they should not only share the penalties of their guilty teammates, but should also be considered for additional fines for failing the team. 

Some of the players have been quoted as saying they don't like being treated as "thugs."  But the ones who are guilty of participating in the bounty process are thugs by any reasonable definition of the word whether they like it or not.  And those who were not guilty of participating are guilty of failing to act.  If someone acts like a thug, they should be treated like a thug.  And those who participated in or ignored the bounty pot are in the same class as schoolyard bullies. 

I would be in favor of barring any player who participated in a bounty plan from playing (without pay) for at least a season.  I would be in favor of barring any player who had knowledge of it but did not report it from playing (without pay) for half a season.  The ones who say they do not like being called thugs should have those penalties doubled since they obviously have a much more difficult time learning and understanding the true vicious nature of their actions.

Even so, they are not subject to the same punishment you or I (outside athletics) would have to endure.  As we know, athletes get special treatment from prosecutors.  The prevailing attitude is to let the sport, the league, the conference, etc. discipline its own.  Never mind that the sports discipline is milder than what nonathletes would face.  I feel that if athletic organizations want to discipline their own members rather than subject them to the law which applies to all the rest of us, they had better do a much better and much more thorough job of it than they are doing now.

Specifically, nothing that the NFL has done in penalizing the Saints has undone any of the previous injustices.  It is not possible, of course, to unbreak a bone, to unstrain a muscle, or to unconcuss a brain.  But the monetary costs of treating such injuries, including loss of playing time, should be covered by the players that intentionally caused them.  Further, community service working with those who are recovering from such injuries might bring home the magnitude of the crimes.  Other sanctions could well be justified including suspensions without pay for a season or more. 

Penalties for the team should include fines for the establishment of a fund to identify and treat injuries--fines at least a hundred times greater than than the one imposed on the Saints.  Team officers must understand that it is their responsibility to oversee their organization.  "Plausible deniability" has no place in a "hit man" environment.  If an owner's team leaves the rails, the owner should be held as esponsible as the staff and the players. 

But the weakest part of the NFL penalties is that it does nothing to stop future efforts of this sort.  Put yourself in the place of a Saints coach and/or owner.  Ask yourself, "Is the flame worth the candle if I try to win games by intentionally injuring an opponent?"  The answer is clearly "yes."  There is a good chance of getting away with it.  After all, the Saints were suspected of illegal activity in 2010 but the only action taken was for the NFL to ask the Saints organization to look into it and make corrections if necessary.  Talk about asking the fox to guard the chicken house!  That action by the NFL was stupid beyond belief. 

But "what if I get caught?  Would it be that bad?"  Clearly not.  "I will lose some money which I can afford.  I could lose a couple of draft picks which would be inconvenient but not crippling.  Perhaps the worst would be to lose players, coaches, and even administrators to suspension or to free agency.  Replacing them would take more effort, but could be done.  Yeah, I'd get hurt if caught, but the rewards would still outweigh the punishment." 

And other clubs would think similarly.  They would see that the penalties imposed on the misnamed Saints were not that effective.  They would realize that "bounty" programs worked there and presumably would work for other clubs.  Would any club under those circumstances feel that the potential benefits from a bounty program were justified even in terms of the risks.  I think a lot would.  Especially if they saw that--at least potentially--an opponent would be using that tactic against them. 

It has been said that one of the reasons that the US public follows professional football so closely is that it loves violence.  Perhaps the NFL is trying to put forward the image of controlling violence, but in actuality wants to increase it.  If so, they are on the correct track to do so.

March 27, 2012  11:33 PM ET

Wow... that was one hell of a take there, John. Nobody else seems to be taking that look of the real intentions of punishment these days. Then again, as we've also seen in the prison system, incarceration and other penalties have increasingly turned away from rehabilitation of either the aggrieved OR the aggressor and have instead focused on this mindset that punitive damage is the appropriate way to rectify a situation.

March 28, 2012  01:05 AM ET

That's quite a take. This is something that I am still trying to wrap my head around. I have an inkling that it happens virtually everywhere, which is why I agree with you. My thought immediately went to the well-known hockey tradition of "putting money on the board". I wonder if it might be more of a deterrent if the NFL made the Saints play with a greatly reduced salary cap for a couple of years and forfeit all profits as their fine. It would be akin to the death penalty in college football, and it would set the team in total rebuild mode. Tough call for sure. Great blog! I love when Passion comes through in writing.

March 28, 2012  01:08 AM ET

Definitely agree with most of what you said. For me, personally, I would've given the Saints a much bigger fine -- something that would've hurt them financially. I wouldn't have taken away any wins because I think that hurts the opponents of the Saints as well, when they shouldn't be punished. The Saints should lose more draft picks (a couple of 1st-rd picks?) and the players who participated should be suspended for, at least, 4 games.

March 28, 2012  11:11 AM ET

Thanks to Bigalke, Chief, and Dyhard. I appreciate your comments. My feeling was that the 'professional football writers' (on other sites as well as this one) were too close to the sport to see how nasty the 'bounty' program was (and may still be for other teams). I would think under 'equal justice for all' that prosecutors should act against the Saints as a 'person' as well as against those--players and staff who participated. But, realistically, that's not going to happen. If real corrective action is to be taken, it will likely have to come from the NFL--and it hasn't yet.

March 28, 2012  12:27 PM ET

Your points are well ireasoned. but the authorities in all major sports across the country are guilty of not enforcing there own rules. This appears to be an epidemic truhat's spreading all over the world, soccer is riddled with these inacc

March 28, 2012  12:52 PM ET

Thanks for your observation, Cocino. I think it likely that what you say is true. Yet in 'bountygate' there is an added emphasis. It is not only about violating the rules, but also of intentionally trying to injure opponents--the ultimate in both illegality and arrogance. Perhaps this time the sports organizations will realize that athletes are not above the law. If so, I have seen no evidence of it from the NFL yet.

March 29, 2012  04:15 PM ET

Wow...interesting that a team with a "bounty" system in place in 2011 to "maim" other players was 11th in the league for penalties/yards penalized per game.

April 4, 2012  04:08 PM ET

Provocative blog, John, well done and I've enjoyed all the comments as well. I agree that the fines are trivial but I liked the NFL's call suspending Payton and their GM. Hitting their draft picks harder and reducing the salary cap would also be appropriate in my opinion although imposing a lower salary cap invites Insta-lawsuit ( see Dan Snyder and Jerry Jones ). The only thing I have to add that hasn't already been covered is that the NFL has had a long history of legitimized violence as culture, whether it be in the form of a bounty system or not. Chuck Bednarik, Ray Nietzchke, Art ( "They call me assassin" ) Tatum, James Harrison and others play(ed) with a ferocity that sometimes went over the top, so to speak. I'll leave it to you to decide whether their most famous - and notorious - hits were intentional or not but either way they were certainly celebrated ( Bednarik never tires of talking about how he laid Frank Gifford out cold and it would be hard to interpret Ray Nietzchke's hammering of "The Hammer" as anything but retribution........ ) and as I recall, not punished. Going from Point A to Point B was not a huge leap............

April 4, 2012  05:10 PM ET


Thanks for thecomment. The NFL has a history of violence to be sure. And the last couple of paragraphs in my blog are questioning whether the lightness of the penalties are in fact an effort to continue that 'tradition.' We will see better when the appeals are heard and the penalties to the players are announced.


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