Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Roger Goodell – keeper of the faith

The NFL is finishing up league ownership meetings at the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida. It’s been anything but business as usual for the $9 billion NFL this past week. Peyton Manning signed a five-year, $95 million contract with the Denver Broncos. The Broncos traded Tim Tebow to the New York Jets on Friday, bringing a media-driven circus to the Big Apple. But NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s announcement of suspensions and fines relating to the New Orleans violation of the NFL’s bounty rule was the biggest news of the past week.

"I think the league has handled it well and appropriately," Atlanta Falcons Owner Arthur Blank told ESPN. "One of the other owners made this point, but I told the commissioner I totally agree with him, the NFL, outside of our stadiums, the only things we really own are our reputation, our integrity, our shield and the relationship and trust we have with our fans and our sponsors. Anything that's done that violates that or hurts that, is something that has to be dealt with. My view is that everything the commissioner has stood for since 2006, which has to do with the shield, the trust, the fans and player safety, etc. really that goes completely in the opposite direction based on the New Orleans experience.

"I think he dealt with it appropriately. I think it will be one of the most significant decisions he'll ever make as the commissioner. I think he'll be the commissioner for the next 30 years and I think people will look back and say he sent a message to the teams, the players, the coaches, everybody in the NFL and sent a message to the fans that 'This is not what we're going to have in this league.' I think it was appropriate. Obviously, it's going to be a hard hit on the Saints, but they'll recover and time will move on and it will be fine."

The Saints are paying a price they deserved for violating one of the most important NFL rules. More than making a mockery of the National Football League, Goodell’s punishment of the Saints sends a clear message to league’s other 31 teams – respect the game, respect the rules of the game, or be prepared to pay a price. Football players and football coaches should see the opportunity to play or coach football on Sundays as a privilege, not a right.

On Tuesday, Saints head coach Sean Payton, suspended for a year by Goodell, suggested he was going to appeal his suspension. Payton’s suspension is to begin April 1. If Payton appeals the suspension, the NFL has made it clear his appeal (which will be heard by Goodell) will be held and a decision will be rendered before April 1.

"I'm appreciative of the opportunity to appeal," Payton said. "I don't know if there would be a benefit."

Payton’s chance of a successful appeal, slim to none, and slim has left the building. Goodell will serve as Payton’s Judge, Jury and Executioner. Payton attending NFL ownership meetings suggested he understands and accepts Goodell’s decision.

“No, I accept this," Payton said. “I’ve heard that argument. I think trying to really look closely at how we and how I can improve is probably a better way for me to handle this than to kind of vent or to look outwardly at other programs and I’ve tried to take that approach."

The Saints succeeded on the field during the three years (2009 to 2011) the franchise violated the NFL’s bounty rule.

“I think the hardest thing is that this would possibly put a taint or tarnish the success we’ve had and I think our players feel that same way,’’ Payton said. “We’ve won 41 games in the last three years. That’s hard to do. And that’s done through hard work. It’s done through discipline. It’s done through execution. It’s done through having good football players that are very coachable. So when we found ourselves maybe in a two-game losing streak or relocated because of a hurricane or we found ourselves kind of going through some tough times, we’ve always responded well. So this is uniquely different, but I do think our players and coaches will take that same response. That starts with our captains, guys that have been in our program for the whole six years that we’ve been together.’’

Payton can believe whatever he’d like to, but when all is said and done, Goodell has the NFL’s support.

“First, let’s be clear – we discussed this with the clubs today – it is fair to say that non-contract bonus payments have been happening around the league more frequently than we had liked. It is going to be discontinued. The problem is those payments escalate and you get to what is more specifically referred to as bounties where you are targeting players for injury. We have not found any evidence that it is happening around the league, where players, coaches or anybody else have identified players to take them out of the game.

“We will continue to follow up on any information we have. We will not resist anyone who comes forward with that. We will look for continuing violations, and if we find it, we will aggressively pursue it.”

Payton’s appeal to Goodell will fall on deaf ears. The appeal is part of the process; Payton will have his “day in court.”

"You go through a range of emotions that kind of hit you,” Payton told the media Tuesday. "You're disappointed; you're disappointed in yourself that it got to this point. And then I think we're trained as coaches to begin preparation right away and I find myself reflecting on it and you go through a lot of emotions.

"Certainly you take lumps and I've taken them before, but I look forward to getting back and I look forward to winning and being successful and being a part of it," Payton said in the lobby of The Breakers hotel. "I think the biggest challenge is, you know, driving in here this morning this will probably be, 39 years, you know as a Pop Warner player, as a high school player, a college player and then a college coach, professional coach, this potentially is the first of 39 years where you're not directly involved in football for a season. But that being said, I look forward to getting back to this position, I look forward to winning and we'll do that.

"They've been difficult, challenging," he said of the six days since Goodell slammed the Saints with suspensions, lost draft pick and a hefty fine. "It's interesting, you find out how close some of your friends are and I said this in our statement our fans back in New Orleans have been amazing. My peers, guys that I'm very close with in this league, the players on our team, really it's like a family and so that's the thing that gets you through something like this."

Goodell’s decision needs to be applauded and embraced by the sports industry. Payton, as the Saints head coach, is responsible for his team’s on-field behavior.

Major League Baseball contracts are guaranteed. National Basketball contracts are guaranteed. National Hockey League contracts are guaranteed. Of the four major North American sports, National Football League contracts are not guaranteed. Only the bonus money NFL players’ receive as part of their contracts, is guaranteed. If an NFL player is injured in a game, his contract and his ability to earn a livelihood can end at that moment in time. The Saints perversion of the NFL’s bounty rule is inexcusable. Sean Payton believes he will be coaching at the start of the 2013 season. What Sean Payton needs to realize – his actions nearly cost him that right. Hopefully, Payton has learned those who break the rules, never prosper.

For Sports Business News, this is Howard Bloom

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