After leading the New Orleans Saints from the post-Hurricane Katrina doldrums to a Super Bowl victory in 2010, Sean Payton was widely heralded as America’s Coach.
Now, facing a one-year suspension over so-called Bountygate, many feel he’s become America’s Scapegoat: the one taking the fall because National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell is “shocked, shocked” to find violence being rewarded in this inherently brutal sport.
Although there’s some legitimacy to this view, we think Goodell made the right call.
Payton’s crime was apparently failing to stop, and then lying about, a scheme in which Saints defensive players and coaches gave cash rewards to teammates who injured opponents. The bounties were hardly good sportsmanship, but football has never been a sport where knocking the other guy out of the game was frowned upon. So it’s understandable that, to some, the sentences meted out to Payton, former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (an indefinite ban from the game), and other Saints officials and the franchise, are harsh and seemingly excessive.
Payton’s defenders also point out that Bill Belichick, the coach of the New England Patriots, was fined but not suspended in 2007 for having aides steal opposing teams’ defensive hand signals. Since when, they ask, is rewarding big hits worse that such out-and-out cheating?
Since it became clear just how many players have suffered serious, lifelong and debilitating injuries during their years in the game. And since the public became aware of just how little the NFL and the players union had done about it.
Payton’s forced year off pales in comparison to the fate of, say, Mike Webster, the former Pittsburgh Steelers center whose life became a trail of depression, dementia and homelessness before he died at age 50 in 2002. A brain-tissue study found that Webster suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a condition that produces symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s disease. A 2000 study of 1,090 former NFL players found that more than 60 percent had suffered at least one concussion in their careers and 26 percent had had three or more. More than 300 former players are now suing the league, which they say hid the neurological dangers of the game.
Goodell has at least taken the health of current players seriously since becoming commissioner in 2006. He has pushed for rule changes to cut down on injuries, often incurring the wrath of fans who see him as spoiling hard-hitting tradition. He has handed out fines and suspensions with all the haste and assurance (if not necessarily accuracy) of Peyton Manning in the two-minute drill.
Yes, this can be seen as self-serving for the league, as injured players don’t draw TV viewers. But it’s also good for fans -- ask any Indianapolis Colts supporter how much fun last season was with Manning on the sidelines.
The question is whether Goodell’s crackdown has been effective. Despite repeated punishments and forced apologies, many players -- James Harrison of the Steelers and Ndamukong Suh of the Detroit Lions come to mind -- seem incapable of changing their ways. So when it came to Bountygate -- a situation where violence was elevated above football -- Goodell had to be certain his message would get through. There is no question that Sean Payton is paying for the league’s sins of the past. But his punishment is in the best interests of the sport and, just as important, the long-term health of the players.
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