When Roger Goodell decided to keep Sean Payton off the sidelines in 2012, he did more than leave his mark on NFL history as the first commissioner to suspend a coach for an entire year. By dumping Payton — and suspending Gregg Williams indefinitely — Goodell made it clear that he is prepared to change the nature of professional football.
Goodell’s suspensions extend beyond the coaching staff and into the front office. He’s also keeping Mickey Loomis out of the Superdome’s press box for the first eight games of the upcoming season and laying down a $500,000 fine. Not to mention the Saints lost two second-round draft picks over as many years.
It was already clear that the disciplinarian commissioner, who assumed the league’s most powerful position in 2006, held few reservations in attempting to make the NFL a safer league. Hard-hitting miscreants like James Harrison and Ndamukong Suh have handed over sizable checks to the league office for illegal hits, and Goodell has sent a strong message that he will not allow such dangerous play.
But this punishment reveals just how dedicated the bronze-haired, 53-year-old league head is to transforming a violent, punishing league into one that will not allow itself to be defined by a gladiator-esque mentality. It’s a bold yet necessary move, one that will perhaps convince some of the league’s dirtiest stars to tone it down.
As John Clayton of ESPN wrote, the punishment Goodell handed down ended any chance of the Saints playing in the 2013 Super Bowl, which they’re hosting, and such repercussions are precisely what make NFL players shift their attitude. Even when players draw $40,000 and $50,000 fines, it’s just a fraction of their salary, nothing more then a minor hassle, a check to make sure you get in the mail on time.
Game suspensions are certainly more meaningful but still don’t match the franchise-changing suspensions Goodell just dropped on the Saints. By banning New Orleans’ charismatic and popular coach from the Superdome’s locker room in 2012, the NFL commissioner is disrupting the entire chemistry of a promising squad. And that’s exactly what he intended to do.
What makes this punishment especially powerful is that it could have this franchise reeling not only this season, but in years to come. Though not quite equivalent to the NCAA’s devastating “death penalty,” it presents the closest comparison in NFL history. I’m not going to assert that this penalty is going to change the way players approach the game, that the weekly fines and back-breaking hits will come to a sudden halt.
But it certainly has the chance to make the minority — those who write the paychecks to Goodell and attack opponents with the same ferocity the following week (I’m looking at you, Steelers defense and Suh) — reconsider. The Saints operation went much deeper as an institutionalized system encouraging dangerous and often illegal hits, but I would venture a not-so-bold guess that they weren’t the only NFL team offering cash for big hits.
According to The Washington Post, multiple players and coaches confirmed the Washington Redskins had a similar system when Williams was the defensive coordinator in the nation’s capital. And any bounty systems still operational when the Saints’ system was uncovered are now all but guaranteed to be history.
While some called for an investigation of all the other 31 NFL teams, most owners and general managers are likely questioning their own staffs, digging to uncover any such system before it’s too late. Watching one franchise be dismantled is enough for any intelligent executive to realize he needs to start an investigation without the help of the NFL bureaucracy.
Regardless of how players and league head-honchos react to the tough punishment doled out by the commissioner’s office, it is a decision Goodell should be commended for.
No matter how important physicality is to football or how much diehards complain about NFL referees being overly protective of quarterbacks and receivers, encouraging violent hits that knock players out of the game is beyond reprehensible. Such financial rewards — even if handed out by players instead of coaches — overstep the boundary between tough, competitive play and causing long-term harm to fellow professional players.
Goodell needed to make a statement that he was willing to lay down the suspensions and take away draft picks to prove his efforts for better player safety are more than a good company line.
In fact, one could argue that nearly shattering any hopes of a Super Bowl run for the Saints hurts the NFL as a whole. The black and gold became one of the top feel-good sports stories after the city of New Orleans adopted the team as a kind of crutch during Hurricane Katrina recovery. A Super Bowl that ended in New Orleans with Drew Brees under center would be the icing on the cake, a great story for the league and a major draw for impartial fans.
But Goodell shied away from the potential profits and glory of that run, showing along the way that he places player safety ahead of the growth and financial success of the league he oversees. It was a message that will be seen as a defining decision of his legacy, one the relatively new NFL commish needed to send.
Ian is a junior majoring in journalism. Think Goodell went too hard on the Saints? Or should he have launched investigations into all the other 31 teams? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.