In the wake of the BountyGate ruling handed down by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, there is one word that is repeatedly getting tossed around, and that word is “unprecedented”. The punishments thus far related to the scandal are as follows:
Former Saints (currently with the Rams) Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams is suspended indefinitely.
Saints Head Coach Sean Payton is suspended for the entire 2012 season.
Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis is suspended for the first eight games of the 2012 season.
The Saints relinquish their 2nd round draft picks in 2012 and 2013.
The Saints organization is fined $500,000.
Player sanctions are to come.
Historically, I don’t think this is as unprecedented as it is made out to be. Certainly, suspending a General Manager, Head Coach, and a high ranking assistant along with the monetary fine is a stiff punishment, but this has been done before. You just have to look a little further back to the 1960’s.
Prior to the 1963 season, then-Commissioner Pete Rozelle suspended two of the NFL’s biggest stars, Paul Hornung and Alex Karras, for gambling. Both players missed the entire 1963 season. These weren’t no-name players, either. Karras was the anchor of the Lions’ defense, and a very colorful character. Hornung was the “Golden Boy”, a Heisman Trophy winner from Notre Dame that was the star running back of the back-to-back NFL Champion Green Bay Packers. Rozelle decided then that he did not want gambling anywhere near the NFL players (gambling on football is an inevitability, he just wouldn’t tolerate any of the players as participants), so he promptly sent a message.
The NFL couldn’t then, and can’t now, invite anything that would upset the competitive balance of the league. The other issue that is in play here is that there is a seedy underbelly that comes with the illegal gambling that Karras and Hornung were involved in. Along with the usual work-pools, barroom pick-em’s, and friendly wagers is the desperate gambler trying to get an edge. Allowing star players to continue their involvement with desperate people with nothing to lose is a quick way to sink people’s faith that the league is fair competition.
Fast-forward to 1969. Another league star (albeit at the time, a different league, at least for the next year) Joe Namath, was threatened with suspensions and a ban from the league for his ownership of Bachelors III, which was reported to have some “connected” clientele. Now, at the time, Namath was as big of a star as there ever was in professional football. He was fresh off his Super Bowl III upset of the Colts, and there was talk that this was Rozelle’s sour grapes towards the upstart AFL’s biggest star. Namath eventually sold off the New York location, but kept all of the other franchises of Bachelors III. Why did the NFL give Namath the ultimatum? Rozelle did not want professional football’s biggest star (and most recognizable face, due to his marketability) having any association with that seedy underbelly.
So what does illegal gambling have in common with BountyGate?
The answer is the seedy underbelly.
Don’t get me wrong, most high school and college teams have some kind of award system for big plays on the field. It could be a bulletin board or chart in the locker room or stickers on the helmets, for things like good blocks, third down conversions, goal-line stands, solo tackles, sacks, etcetera. Those kids of awards are fairly innocent and good-natured that are designed to give a little more motivation for a better performance. Where the seedy underbelly comes in is when monetary awards were given for knock-out shots and injuries that result in players not being able to finish the game.
There is a big difference between giving a sticker for a third-down stop and under-the-table money for sending a player to the hospital. The player to worry about in the latter case isn’t the star of the team. It’s the guy looking for recognition in the locker room or adoration from his teammates, and is willing to compromise another players’ career to obtain it. That is the seedy underbelly; it’s just that it takes place in the locker room, not in a dingy bar.
Placing bounties on opposing players threatens the NFL as a whole, directly. The NFL is in a constant back-and-forth with former players over player safety. I do think that the NFL has done the best that they can when it comes to player safety. There is no way that they could let the Saints off with a minimal punishment for intentionally injuring players, and look former and current players in the eye and say “We’re looking out for your safety”. If they would have let the Saints off with a fine and a strongly worded letter, it would send a crystal-clear message to the rest of the NFL: Bounties are all right. The NFL and Goodell decided to scorch the Earth that surrounds the Superdome to send a very different message: We will not tolerate placing any kind of an incentive on injuring another player.
Team owners, management, the coaching staff, players, training staff, janitors, water boys, and the team mascot will think about their own livelihood when they think about passing money back and forth. Saints and Rams fans may cry foul over this, but it was the right thing to do. There is a remarkable difference between playing hard in a violent game, and intentionally doling out violence to further your locker room reputation. If the NFL allowed this to continue, you could see the lawsuits rolling in from current and former players on the NFL’s policies on player safety. Just like the Karras, Hornung, and Namath scandals before, BountyGate threatens the game that we all so dearly love.