Follow the money.
“Deep Throat’s” advice to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in director Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 screen version of their classic journalistic Watergate story, All the President’s Men, resonates through the sporting world. Money is at the heart of all significant decisions in sports, from Walter O’Malley’s relocating his Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles after the 1957 baseball season to former Cardinals idol Albert Pujols’ abandonment of St. Louis for more than $240 million offered by Anaheim.
Major League Baseball basked in the riches of the late 1990’s, when widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs led to record offensive numbers and the classic race for Roger Maris’ home run title waged by Mark Maguire and Sammy Sosa, players whose reputations have since been tarnished by their perceived association with steroids. Attendance reached all-time highs and jerseys flew off store shelves, so why would baseball powers challenge the legitimacy of artificially-enhanced records?
It took an act of Congress to alter baseball’s attitude towards PED’s. Faced with congressional hearings and threatened with the loss of MLB’s antitrust exception, a loss which would have resulted in a massive financial downturn for the sport, baseball leaders finally came together, acknowledged the problems associated with PED’s and crafted a system intended to dissuade players’ use of steroids and other enhancers. Yet despite facing extended suspensions if caught using PED’s, many baseball players continue to take the risk. Again, the issue is money. Players weigh the financial benefit of long-term contracts (such as Pujols’) given to those with superlative offensive numbers against the impact of potential banishment from the sport if caught using PED’s. It is not surprising that, in a society which consistently rewards the here and now, positive tests for PED’s continue to surface.
Football, a sport where brute force is an asset, and which has seen the lives of stars, such as former Raiders and Broncos defensive end Lyle Alzado, cut short by the use of steroids, has never developed a PED testing system to rival that of Major League Baseball. It has not had to because the NFL has never faced the potential financial consequences that forced MLB’s hand.
The one unpleasant issue that football has been forced to address recently has been concussions. For years the NFL ignored the detrimental effect that multiple concussions had on the lives of former players, despite consistent evidence of permanent brain damage caused by the violent hits associated with the sport. When many of those former players filed lawsuits, the NFL had to take notice. Faced with potential jury verdicts in the hundreds of millions of dollars, NFL leaders for the first time acknowledged that an issue existed and commenced studies to ensure player safety.
Which brings us to what sports journalists have christened “Bountygate.” When news surfaced in recent months that former New Orleans Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams offered Saints players money for disabling hits on opposing players, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell expressed outrage. While his office investigated the allegations, many questions were posed: How widespread was the practice? How long did it last? How much did Head Coach Sean Payton know?
The NFL completed its investigation, and Goodell’s hammer came down last week with a loud and violent crash. The team was fined $500,000, the maximum under the league constitution, and stripped of two high draft choices. Saints’ General Manager Mickey Loomis was suspended for 8 games and Assistant Coach Joe Vitt 6 games. Williams, now coaching with the St. Louis Rams, was suspended indefinitely. And Head Coach Payton, the “golden boy” who led the Saints to victory in Super Bowl XLIV, and whose accomplishments seemed to place him on the road to the Hall of Fame, was banished from the sport for a year.
Many were shocked by the severity of the sanctions. While repercussions were expected, few believed that, in a league that had never suspended a head coach for any reason, Payton would be treated this harshly. This was, after all, the man who helped lift the spirit of New Orleans by committing to help rebuild the city after the devastation of Katrina, the man who convinced Quarterback Drew Brees to join him in his efforts to restore the glory of the Crescent City, the man who carried the Super Bowl trophy down St. Charles Avenue in a parade that symbolized victory not just for the team, but for a seemingly lost populace.
Further, no evidence has surfaced that the “bounties” were offered for illegal hits. Injuries are very much a part of the sport of football, where players are taught from childhood to drive through the body when tackling, and the hardest hits are regularly highlighted on ESPN. Violent behavior is routinely rewarded with long-term contracts worth millions of dollars. What Williams did, and Payton assented to, was very much within the culture of the NFL (stay tuned for coming investigations of “bounties” offered by other teams).
Payton will remain a hero in a city known for its independent character and colorful ethics. His efforts on behalf of New Orleans will continue to be celebrated, even as his role in “Bountygate” is scrutinized.
Yet neither Payton’s philanthropic reputation nor the league’s history of violence impacted Commissioner Goodell’s decision. His sanctions were severe because they had to be. In the end, Goodell’s decision was not moral, but economic.
Failure by the NFL to act decisively when faced with “Bountygate” allegations would have been used by players in the concussions litigation. They would have characterized lesser sanctions by the NFL as further evidence of the league’s indifference to player safety. Juries would have considered such indifference in rendering verdicts and awarding damages.
So Goodell had little choice. He had to come down hard on all associated with “Bountygate.”
Payton had to go.
It was the sensible decision.