Saints 'bountygate' suspensions: Is Roger Goodell fighting football itself?

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell came down hard on four current and former New Orleans Saints for participating in a bounty program to injure opponents. But some say he's going too far.

Dave Martin/AP/File
This file photo shows then-New Orleans Saint Anthony Hargrove firing up his teammates before the NFC Championship football game against the Minnesota Vikings in New Orleans. Hargrove, now with the Green Bay Packers, is suspended for eight games this season for participating in a pay-for-pain bounty system.

National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell has doled out severe suspensions to four New Orleans Saints players for their roles in a scandal that has already cost Saints head coach Sean Peyton his season, and likely, former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams his NFL career.

In handing down the punishments Wednesday, Goodell continued his hard line against bad behavior and his grappling with the complicated question of NFL player safety, something he’s been doing since he took over the commissioner's post in 2006. His latest move, like many before it, raises questions about whether the commissioner can – or should – try to make a violent sport a little less savage.

Defenders Jonathan Vilma, Anthony Hargrove (now a Green Bay Packer), Will Smith, and Scott Fujita (now a Cleveland Brown) will be suspended without pay for their involvement in a scheme in which Saints defenders were financially rewarded for knocking opposing players out of games.

The most severe punishment went to linebacker Vilma, who will sit out the entire 2012-13 season. The NFL’s investigation found that Vilma helped establish the bounty program when he was a captain on the Saints’ defense, helping Williams fund the rewards. 

“Multiple independent sources also confirmed that Vilma offered a specific bounty – $10,000 in cash – to any player who knocked Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner out of the 2009 divisional playoff game and later pledged the same amount to anyone who knocked Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre out of the 2009 NFC championship game the following week,” read the NFL’s statement on the bounty punishments.

Hargrove was suspended eight games, Smith four games, and Fujita three games.  

The bounty scandal punishments come at a time when the NFL is at somewhat of a crossroads in terms of player safety. Throughout his tenure, Goodell has been behind several initiatives unpopular with many current players to make the game safer.  

In 2010, for instance, he issued a slew of player fines for hard-hitting tackles and sent out a leaguewide memo emphasizing the importance of “teaching safe and controlled techniques, and playing within the rules.”  

In another effort to curb injury, the league changed the rules for kickoffs last season, moving the ball forward five yards and limiting the running start for coverage units. The rule resulted in a huge uptick in touchbacks, and players and coaches complained that it reduced the role of one of the NFL’s most exciting plays. And the NFL may go a step further: rumors have been swirling that the league eventually wants to eliminate kickoffs altogether.

Goodell has been no less forgiving of bad behavior off the field. In 2007, following a particularly bad year for NFL players and the law, he announced a new Personal Conduct Policy for the league, fining and in some cases suspending players for breaking the law. According to a USA Today report, player arrests have gone down in each of Goodell’s years as commissioner, from 79 in 2006 to 62 in 2011.

The Saints bounty case is just the latest in Goodell’s ongoing efforts to change NFL culture. But his detractors argue that football, at its core, is a violent sport, and football players are grown men who know what they're signing up for.

Many current NFL players have been critical of Goodell for the suspensions, though he reportedly consulted the NFL Players Association beforehand. “Next thing you know we’ll be playing two hand touch football #Lame,” tweeted Miami Dolphins running back Reggie Bush, who played for the Saints when the bounty program was in operation. “I bet you won’t find one NFL Player who agrees with these suspensions.”

What’s more, critics argue, NFL contracts are loaded with performance-based incentives, and hard hits are a huge part of whether or not a team succeeds. The Saints were just doing under the table what the NFL has been encouraging for its entire existence.

Yet the punishments are bound to have an effect. Lost seasons and millions of dollars in salary money are powerful motivators.

"Let me be clear," Goodell said in a statement after issuing Payton’s suspension. "There is no place in the NFL for deliberately seeking to injure another player, let alone offering a reward for doing so. Any form of bounty is incompatible with our commitment to create a culture of sportsmanship, fairness and safety. Programs of this kind have no place in our game, and we are determined that bounties will no longer be a part of the NFL."

Does that mean Goodell is transforming football into something less violent? Perhaps, though that's not entirely clear yet. What is clear is that in the face of a growing number of lawsuits by former NFL players, as well as increasing medical scrutiny over the risk of severe head injuries, neither Goodell nor the NFL could afford to go easy on the Saints.

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