Thursday, March 22, 2012

Roger Goodell senses a clear and present danger (and delivers)

In what will be long-remembered as one of his defining moments as National Football League Commissioner, Roger Goodell suspended New Orleans Saints Coach Sean Payton on Wednesday for the entire 2012 season, suspended former Saints (and current St. Louis Rams) Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams indefinitely, Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis for eight games and Saints Assistant Head Coach Joe Vitt. The Saints were fined $500,000. In addition, because the violation involves a competitive rule, the Saints forfeited their selections in the second round of the 2012 and 2013 NFL drafts.

The suspensions and fines imposed on team management are for violations of the NFL’s long-standing “bounty” rule that endangered player safety over a three-year period. Each of the suspensions also includes a loss of salary. Sean Payton lost $8 million on Wednesday.

“We are all accountable and responsible for player health and safety and the integrity of the game,” Commissioner Goodell said. “We will not tolerate conduct or a culture that undermines those priorities. No one is above the game or the rules that govern it. Respect for the game and the people who participate in it will not be compromised.”

“A combination of elements made this matter particularly unusual and egregious,” Commissioner Goodell continued. “When there is targeting of players for injury and cash rewards over a three-year period, the involvement of the coaching staff, and three years of denials and willful disrespect of the rules, a strong and lasting message must be sent that such conduct is totally unacceptable and has no place in the game.”

Goodell’s decision effectively turned the 2012 New Orleans Saints into the New Orleans “Aint’s.” New Orleans will host Super Bowl XLVII on February 3, 2013. The Saints had been building a team that many football insiders believed would represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, becoming the first team to play a Super Bowl game in their home stadium.

The Saints issued the following statement late Wednesday: “Today, Commissioner Goodell apprised us of the severe penalties facing our club, as proposed by the NFL.

“We recognize our fans’ concerns and we regret the uncertainty this episode has created for them. We are humbled by the support our organization has received from our fans today in the wake of this announcement, and we ask them to continue to stand with us, as they have done in the past, when both our team and our city have overcome greater adversities.

“To our fans, the NFL and the rest of our league, we offer our sincere apology and take full responsibility for these serious violations.

“It has always been the goal of the New Orleans Saints to create a model franchise and to impact our league in a positive manner.

“There is no place for bounties in our league and we reiterate our pledge that this will never happen again.”

Saints Owner Tom Benson has yet to speak out regarding how he feels about the actions of his head coach and general manager. Payton’s Saints won Super Bowl XLIV on February 7, 2010. Nonetheless Benson would be justified if he fired Payton with cause. Goodell made it clear that Benson didn’t have any idea his team had violated the NFL’s Bounty Rule multiple times in a three-year period. As the team’s head coach, Payton is the Saints’ leader on and off the football field. Payton’s lack of leadership represents a complete failure.

Goodell has made player safety one of his most important platforms as commissioner. More than 300 former NFL players and their families are in the midst of multiple lawsuits against the NFL with issues directly related to player safety. The complaints against the NFL allege fraud and negligence; and accuses the league of hiding medical evidence about the risks of concussions and failing to warn players they risked permanent brain injury if they returned to play too soon after they sustained a concussion.

“The message was sent to everyone in football – from the Pop Warner level all the way up to the National Football League: player safety and integrity of the game are the two most sacrosanct areas in football today, and if you violate either of those dictums – and, in this case, basically all of them were violated – then you’re going to get a severe, severe penalty. … What really affects the field this year is the loss of the heart and soul of the team, the head coach, who had his fingerprints on every facet of the organization,” former Indianapolis Colts General Manager and current ESPN NFL Analyst Bill Polian offered.

There have been suggestions “bounties” are part of how football is played. Goodell made it clear on Wednesday – bounties have no part in the NFL.

“Bounty programs have no place in our game,” Commissioner Goodell stated. “They are incompatible with our efforts to promote sportsmanship, fair play, and player safety.”

Going forward, Commissioner Goodell said the annual certifications required of each club under the league’s “Integrity of the Game Policy” will be modified to include specific references to bounties and pay-for-performance programs. The prohibition on pay-for-performance programs includes not just “bounties,” but any form of non-contract bonus payment. Owners and head coaches share the responsibility for ensuring adherence to these rules and for promoting player safety and the integrity of the game.

Goodell held himself together Wednesday afternoon in an interview with NFL Network’s Rich Eisen. There had been rumors the Saints had violated the NFL’s bounty program time and time again. Each time when the league asked the Saints about the allegations, the team said there was no truth to the rumors; they said the rumors had no foundation.

“Clearly we were lied to. We investigated this back in 2010. We were told that it was not happening. It continued for another two years until we got credible evidence late in the 2011 season. We were able, obviously, to identify significant information that verifies from multiple sources that this was going on for a three-year period,” Goodell told Eisen.

“Unfortunately, I’ve been dealing with this over the past few months. As you find out what’s going on, you are disappointed, angered. There are a lot of great people who coach, play and are involved and care deeply about this game. The game doesn’t need to be played this way. That has been made clear by the players and coaches that I’ve spoken to. We need to change the culture. This is another step in changing that culture. This type of behavior and accepting this type of a program is not going to be tolerated.”

Roger Goodell acted in the best interest of the National Football League. He also acted in the best interests of the New Orleans Saints. Any anger over Goodell’s decision should be directed at Sean Payton and the New Orleans Saints.

The Saints have admitted they are guilty; Payton has admitted he is guilty; Gregg Williams admitted he is guilty; Mickey Loomis has admitted he is guilty; Joe Vitt has admitted he is guilty. They are guilty, they have embarrassed their chosen profession, and they have shamed professional football. They acted without honor. Roger Goodell honored the National Football League Wednesday by making it clear – deviant and abhorrent behavior is unacceptable in the National Football League.

For Sports Business News, this is Howard Bloom

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