I didn't want to write anything about the BountyGate coverage knowing I could never give an unbiased, fair assessment of the scandal as a lifelong Saints fan. I've always been curious what it'd be like to have my team at the center of a scandal big enough it got its own "Gate" attached to it... now I know, it sucks. This is worse than going through the years of Billy Joe Hobert AND Billy Joe Tolliver. The actions of Gregg Williams, Sean Payton, Mickey Loomis, the players, and everyone else in BountyGate have taken a team whose story was admired and embraced by a nation - from the depths of Hurricane Katrina all the way to a Super Bowl triumph - and blotted it with an ugly scandal. They've hurt their organization, their league, and their fans in a drastic way.
Make no mistake, the Saints organization and those involved should pay for what transpired, if for nothing else than their sheer arrogance and stupidity in lying to the league and thinking they would never get found out. With Roger Goodell's emphasis on player safety (more on that in a bit), they had to know the risk of getting caught giving out bounties to knock players out of games would far outweight the petty cash and/or symbolic reward. They had to know the hammer would come down hard when that day of reckoning would come, especially after attempting to cover up their activities. The parties involved deserve every bit of likely punishment that's coming (fines, suspensions, draft picks) because of that reality.
Are bounties wrong? Of course. Unethical? Absolutely. But as you've heard this week, bounties and pay for performance schemes aren't exclusive to New Orleans. Of course, that in no way excuses the elaborate and cringe-inducing scheme run by Gregg Williams though.
But it's also true that in any "Gate" level scandal or controversy, the media by nature is bound to circle like hungry sharks smelling blood in the water. When this type of story erupts, levelheadedness too often gets thrown out the window. Rushes to judgment are made. Sweeping comparisons are a dime a dozen.
The competition of "Who Can Be The Most Appalled And Horrified This Could Happen" among sportswriters over BountyGate has been a story worth watching in its own right. But in the end, the hyperbole therein hides the true scandal of BountyGate. Just take a look at these examples...
There's Ashley Fox of ESPN saying Mickey Loomis and Sean Payton should be fired. Somewhat reasonable if unlikely. There's Mike Florio concerned with the potential of Saints fans who are crazed "nutcases" taking vigilante justice on whoever informed the league about the bounties. Completely out of nowhere, but sure, whatever. Skip Bayless says it taints the Saints Super Bowl win forever. That's a relief. There's PFT again hypothetically wondering if Peyton Manning's neck injury was caused by a Gregg Williams bounty. All these stories are symoblic of the constant oneupsmanship for who can be the most outraged and suggest the steepest penatlites for Gregg Williams and the Saints. But these examples aren't even among the most drastic.
*Take Gary Myers of the New York Daily News as one of many saying defensive coordinator Gregg Williams should get a lifetime NFL ban. A bit extreme, but with the furor surrounding BountyGate, not surprising. He writes this:
"Play hard. Play clean. When players walk off the field after a game, the last thing they say to each other is, “Stay healthy.”
As it turns out, they all don’t mean it, especially those who play for former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who should be thrown out of the NFL for life by Roger Goodell. He was financially motivating players to hurt players. It doesn’t get worse than that."
If you're going to ban Gregg Williams for life because of the bounty program, you better be prepared to throw out a larger percentage than you think of defensive players and coaches if the NFL carries its investigation of bounties to its logical conclusion. The shock and awe that something so monstrous can happen in the NFL rings a bit hollow. Football is a violent game. Defensive players have been trying to hurt offensive players since a pig's skin was first used to make an oblong shaped ball. Ever seen this hit? We've romanticized guys like Chuck Bednarik for decades, now is it time to pretend that side of football has never existed? Doesn't get worse than that? I can think of a few off-field examples of NFL players and coaches committing crimes that indeed are, but that doesn't fit neatly into this news cycle.
*The "haughty" Gregg Easterbrook has already been taken down at length by Deadspin as he went all-in with his typical flash and aplomb and DERANGED HYSTERIA!!! These are actual words written by an actual columnist at an actual sports website:
"With football being hammered by scandal after scandal, where is the person of honor who will take a stand to return integrity to the sport?"
"Michael Vick went to prison for nearly two years for harming dogs, which he should not have done. Williams offered players money to harm people. And there was no misunderstanding: Williams told the league Friday, "We knew we were wrong while we were doing it.'' The situations are not directly analogous. But if prison was the fair punishment for causing harm to animals, the punishment Williams faces must be severe."
Killing and torturing dogs and breaking federal law IS NOT DIRECTLY ANALOGOUS to a coach wanting his players to knock an opponent out of a game. Whew, glad that's been clarified. What does this sentence even mean though - "if prison was the fair punishment for causing harm to animals, the punishment Williams faces must be severe." Severe... so beheading? Firing squad? What exactly will satisfy Gregg Easterbrook's thirst for blood? If you thought this couldn't get any more self-righteous, here you go...
"But high school players are exposed to injuries that at minimum cause pain, expense and lost school time, and at worst may bring lifelong physical or mental debilitation. If the example being set by the NFL is one of a Super Bowl team acting gleeful over injured opponents, the worst harm isn't done to the pros. It is done at the high school level, where most of the sport is played, and where teens, and their coaches, emulate what they see in the NFL."
Think of the children, won't somebody please think of the children!!
*Not to be outdone by his fellow Greg-with-an-extra-G, Gregg Doyel of CBS called for Gregg Williams to be incarcerated. I would have thought the Greggs would have banded together:
"After being barred for life from the NFL -- I mean, don't even let him into the stadium as a fan -- Williams should spend the next several years worrying about criminal charges. Jail? Sure. Until the statute of limitations expires, Williams should spend the next several years worrying about jail."
We've already discussed the liftetime ban as a slippery slope... but jail? If you want to classify what Gregg Williams did as a criminal offense, what about the guys that actually delivered the hits. Shouldn't the ones that actually committed these acts of "battery" be thrown in the clink? If that's what we want, again, then let's throw Warren Sapp in with them for his dirty hit on Chad Clifton. Albert Haynesworth and Ndamukong Suh can't get away with their stomps that were outside the rules and spirit of the game either. Were those dastardly acts done with the best of intentions, or are we only limiting this kind of behavior when there's an envelope of cash at stake? Should we extend this conversation to baseball beanings, hockey fights, drivers intentionally wrecking one another, and flagrant fouls in basketball too?
Come to think of it, have we actually heard one specific story of a person who suffered incredible physical and emotional harm because of a bounty hit in the last three years? Wait a second... oh no... no... oh crap...
"I want him (Williams) to see Brett Favre, because Williams' bounty system helped chase one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history into retirement. You can argue Favre should have retired anyway at age 41, but that's another matter. Right or wrong, Favre couldn't walk away -- didn't walk away -- until he could barely walk away thanks to the brutal pounding the Saints administered.
Favre didn't retire until a year later, but the beating he took in that game reduced him to a shell of himself for his final, injury-shortened season. It was so brutal, so unusual even in the context of professional football, that it dominated conversation for days and remained a topic of discussion for months."
This sentiment is fine and dandy until you consider the facts. Favre did walk away, Favre didn't miss a play in that NFC Championship Game, and Favre came back to play the next season. To try to turn BountyGate into the evil Saints pulling the trigger on Old Yeller is laughable. Did the hits on Favre dominate converstaion for days and remain a topic of discussion for months? That's just revisionist history at its finest. I don't remember Favre being a shell of his former self when he threw his 500th career TD pass to Randy Moss in New York the next season. But then again, one of the most satiable elements in BountyGate for the media is to take a trip back to the altar of Favre.
*Standing there is the King of all that is Favre, Peter King of Sports Illustrated. From the second BountyGate was made public, King has inserted Favre front and center into the narrative. King throws out the hypotheticals of Pete Morelli flagging Bobby McCray for his low hit on the quarterback and the Vikings eventually winning the game because of it in his Tuesday column. My, what could have been...
Hard to imagine Favre, regardless how he felt, not playing in the Super Bowl two weeks later. I bet he would have, come hell or high water. But he wasn't sure about that when we spoke Friday. "I wonder if I would have been able to play in the Super Bowl,'' said Favre. "I'm just telling I could not walk on Tuesday. That was a bad one.''
Just another part of this story that makes you sit back and wonder a lot of things about that day in January 2010.
What makes me wonder is whether or not BountyGate would be the worst scandal of all-time if Tavaris Jackson was the quarterback that day instead of Brett Favre. What confuses me is the same Favre that was forced to retire because of this barbaric brutality would have played in a game two weeks later? Which one is it? To his credit, Favre isn't getting caught up in the BountyGate madness, maybe he's changed in retirement. However, when King waxes about what could have been for Favre, it takes away from the real story at hand.
It's all well and good to glorify big hits and celebrate the violence associated with football until the curtain is pulled back. It's all well and good to glorify the violence of the game for "JACKED UP" and highlight packages and praise bonecrushing hits. But how many of those hits have been a part of bounties with or without a monetary reward attached? If we collectively want to go down this road, we need to consider the fundamental nature of the sport we all love, and consider our role in supporting it.
The bottom line in BountyGate is this - the media, fans, the NFL, and nearly everyone else emerges as a winner in taking a piece of the BountyGate pie. The media gets to play the outraged card and shower us with righteous indignation. The media loves nothing more than a scandal, and this has everything - high profile franchise in the nation's most popular sport, good turned evil, and one of the greatest media love affairs in the history of football as the central victim of the story. The TV networks get their hours of offseason coverage filled with a sensational controversy that can be debated from a million different angles. And we all as fans (well, except for Saints fans) get to have a new villainous foe and take up real estate on the moral high ground.
But most of all, the NFL and Roger Goodell get to fly the flag of player safety and protect the shield. Nevermind the NFL pushing for an 18 game regular season and more punishment for their players in exchange for more dollars. Nevermind the battle during the recent labor dispute between the NFL and its current and former players over pension and long-term healthcare. Nevermind the utter hypocrisy of the league when it comes to issues of player safety. Goodell will get just what he wants here - bringing his golden gavel down and being the white knight of the NFL while players still go out and ravage each other's bodies, bounties or not.
In reality, at its core, BountyGate is a scandal not because of a rogue defensive coordinator or a disturbingsly sophisticated system of rewarding physical harm. BountyGate is a scandal because it reveals the cold, hard truth of football - people willing to hurt other people and put their bodies and lives at risk to gain success and immortality. That won't change whether or not bounties are put in place. Football is a violent sport that has climbed to the top of the world because of its violence. That's not an easy thing to say, but it's been true about us throughout our history.
After all, what do you think drew fans to the Roman Coliseum?