I am so angered by the insane, over-the-top suspensions of Saints football coach Sean Payton, General Manager Mickey Loomis, and pretty much everyone in New Orleans except for the cast of Treme, that I had to create a new word. I’m shock-raged. The entire 2012 season for a team that could rightly be called a Super Bowl favorite has been sliced to ribbons by the SportsWorld’s favorite judge, jury and executioner, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. By taking out the entire Saints brain trust, like he’s Michael Corleone at the end of The Godfather, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is sending one hell of a loud message. But cacophony is not the same as clarity. Most agree the Saints should have met with some punishment for having a “bounty system” against opposing players, but suspending the head coach for an entire season? Suspending the General Manager for eight games? Suspending former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams indefinitely? Why?
Ask Roger Goodell, and he will say that the suspensions were so harsh because the league needed to protect players and take a stand against the culture of violence that bounties imply. But this fails the most basic of smell tests. If Goodell cared about player safety, he wouldn’t be pushing for an eighteen-game season. He wouldn’t have spent last off-season fighting the NFL Players Association on expanding health benefits or limiting “voluntary” off-season workouts. He wouldn’t be promoting Thursday-night games, which will accelerate injuries by giving players a shorter week to heal.
Goodell also said that the suspensions were so harsh because the Saints executives and coaches “misled” and “misrepresented” what was going on when called to his carpet. First of all, my own sources said that Payton and company arrived in Goodell’s lair with their hats in hand ready to name names like Elia Kazan on sodium pentothal. But even if they did “mislead” and “misrepresent” on bounties, think about the ways that Goodell has “misled” and misrepresented” the public about the true effects of violence in his sport. This is a league with a 100 percent injury rate, a concussion epidemic and a history of sending concussed players into games. It’s why they’re being sued by a large collection of former star players, including Jim McMahon, Mark Duper and Hall of Famers Carl Eller, John Hannah and Chuck Bednarik.
I am not saying that the Saints shouldn’t have been punished. There should be zero tolerance for any kind of a locker-room culture that abides a bounty system, but every NFL defense aims to “take out” the opposing team’s star player. They’ll say, and the Saints players have said, that the goal is always to do it “within the rules of the game.” I don’t doubt this. The problem is that the overwhelming number of crippling injuries all take place within the “rules of the game.” Violence is football and football is violence. That’s not a critique or value judgment. Just a fact.
The real reason Roger Goodell has smashed the Saints season is, as Jason Reid of the Washington Post put it, “brand protection at the highest level.” Goodell doesn’t work for the players. He works for the owners. No player on earth should believe he has their interests at heart. It’s just not his job. His job is selling the idea that the NFL, because of the padding, because of his wise rule changes, because of his system of deterrence, is violence without consequence. It’s just not true. He wants to send a message to all the skittish parents reading about concussions, to all the people complaining about a possible eighteen-game season and to the dozens of former players suing the league that the league’s violence can be controlled and regulated under his watchful eye. What an absolute sham. The sport is built on violence. If that’s too much for people to handle, then they can take their money elsewhere. If that makes a promising young player quit for other pursuits, so be it. But at least they’d be making an informed decision and not judging the game on fraudulent grounds.
If there’s a silver lining in all of this, hopefully we can finally dispense with the fiction that the NFL has a special place in its heart for the city of New Orleans. We can stop saying that after Katrina, the NFL is the best friend the city has. Instead, expect an ailing Saints team to cost the still rebuilding city millions. This league is not your friend, Saints fans. I hope the season-ticket holders organize themselves like the former players and take the NFL to court. Roger Goodell thinks he lives above the law. But he shouldn’t be allowed to do this to the Saints, their fans, and the city of New Orleans, without legal consequence. Maybe Goodell will then be shock-raged for a change.