National Football League (NFL) commissioner Roger Goodell has set a dangerous precedent. It is estimated that 22 to 27 players participated in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal, yet only four (along with two coaches, one general manager and two second round picks) have been suspended. The scandal was centered on a program that for the last three years provided incentives for Saints’ players to deliberately injure opponents. Players and pundits have argued that the current suspensions were perhaps too harsh: The Saints lost their head coach and arguably their best defensive player for an entire season. Yet when all is examined, it becomes abundantly clear that the punishment was far too lenient.
Every player and coach who participated in, or was even aware of, this scandal should have been suspended. Four players (only two of whom are still on the Saints) were suspended, leaving 18 to 23 players to face no repercussions. The NFL is an extremely competitive league—every team wants any advantage they can get. However, deliberately injuring opponents cannot be a means to get that edge.
Had Goodell suspended every player and coach involved (for varying amounts of time), he would have sent the message that the league would be willing to devastate a team if its actions warrant it. In this scenario, there would have been inevitable repercussions had he actually taken further steps. The league would have faced tremendous backlash from the media and the players themselves. The Saints, a quasi-Super Bowl contender, would definitely have lost a game or two they normally wouldn’t have and possibly have missed the playoffs because of it. Despite these pitfalls it would have been worth it for the league as a whole. With those kinds of penalties as a precedent, every team in the league would be extremely hesitant to do anything illegal. Instead, Goodell focused on the so-called “players who were in leadership positions at the Saints,” he said of the bounty ring, sending the message that you can get away with participating in illegal activities as long as you don’t lead them.
As for the players and coaches who were suspended, it is absurd to suggest they should have been suspended for less time. James Harrison, Ndamukong Suh, and Albert Haynesworth were suspended for one, two and five games respectively for spur-of-the-moment on-the-field incidents. It’s only logical that premeditated violence—in this case, three years of it—warrants a longer suspension, yet only two of the players involved in the scandal got suspensions longer than Haynesworth’s five games.
As for the coaches and management, they should consider themselves lucky to not have been suspended for a longer span. Former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams should have been suspended for life. Everyone deserves a second chance, but Williams had numerous chances to end the program but didn’t, reportedly running the program while with the Washington Redskins and Tennessee Titans organizations as well. Saints’ head coach Sean Payton and General Manager Mickey Loomis were both aware of the bounty ring and, instead of handling it internally, they continued to play the role of enablers by allowing it to continue. Loomis was even ordered by Saints’ owner Tom Benson to end the program, but ignored the warning.
The NFL has been intent on lowering the rate of concussions. They have instituted stricter penalties for illegal hits, shortened the distance of kickoffs, and provided more help for NFL retirees suffering from the after-effects of multiple head injuries. In the bounty ring, players were compensated for head hits and encouraged to target opponents with a history of concussions. By absolving those on the periphery and not issuing harsher penalties for those at the forefront of this program, the NFL is deviating from its strong stance on player safety.
Why was the Saints punishment so lenient? Perhaps because of the aforementioned backlash, or it may have way to keep one of the league’s most popular teams competitive. The Saints targeted some of the league’s best quarterbacks, including Aaron Rodgers, Brett Favre, Cam Newton, and Kurt Warner, with Favre and Warner getting severely injured. We don’t know how many more players were affected by the program. What we do know is that the NFL had a chance to close the door on future bounty programs and they blew it.