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Criticism of Goodell's Punishment of the Saints is Shortsighted

When many felt a household hammer would suffice for the Saints, Roger Goodell used a sledge. His bounty sanctions kneecapped New Orleans’ 2012 season and cost head coach Sean Payton $7.5 million in salary. The punishments seem excessive, even vindictive if viewed in a vacuum, but the truth is far more complex.

The severity had little to do with the Saints’ actions in isolation and internal league politics and everything to do with the imminent and potentially catastrophic litigation the league faces over head injuries. Scientific exploration of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy and concussions is in the preliminary stages, and the case studies of Dave Duerson, Chris Henry and others present a grim forecast.

We have not yet had a generation of players, who played through modern 10 to 15-year careers, move into middle age fully cognizant of the damage they might have suffered. Unlike scores of other health problems faced by football players, concussions can be attributed directly to NFL football, league policies and neglect. The moral toll itself may make the sport, as presently constituted, untenable. The fiscal toll from a massive class-action lawsuit could cripple it.

Radical reform is required. NFL officials understand this better than any outsider. This is why  intrusive safety measures have been introduced, including massive fines for violent hits and moving the kickoff to the 35-yard line. This is why we should expect the league to be far more proactive funding research the next few years.

Viewing the New Orleans events through this prism, an organized bounty system is one of the worst things the NFL could have happen. This is not just players deliberately injuring other players. This is NFL employees orchestrating and promoting the deliberate injuring of other players. Any leniency on the league’s part, especially after the Saints had been ordered once to stop it, would be viewed later as tacit acceptance. It would undermine any claims the league would make about promoting adequate safety measures. Roger Goodell’s only option, to blunt this being used to the league’s detriment, was to be concrete and merciless.

The shocking, prohibitive penalties emphasize a broader culture point. Rules are being altered to enact a cultural change. The NFL sorely needs this. Most players, fans and media members seem less concerned about the safety implications of a bounty system than about the betrayal of the whistleblower or “snitch” who leaked word of it and set back the Saints franchise. Immediate competitive concerns can no longer trump the welfare of the work force. Goodell hitting the Saints this hard drives that point home.

If the lockout taught anything, it’s that Roger Goodell is no dictator. He’s a steward, employed by an oligarchy to protect billions of dollars worth of investments. It may be five, ten or fifteen years from now, but the NFL will combat litigation that could mushroom into an apocalyptic shit storm. Compared to that grave reality, the fate of Sean Payton’s coaching future and New Orleans’ 2012 season are mere trifles. Goodell had to act.

The NFL has to become safer to survive. League officials, thus far, have shown the conviction to buck fan sentiment and take the appropriate steps. Even if that is out of naked self-interest, it is still commendable.

[Photo via Getty]

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