The NFL’s internal dispute resolution system carries with it an added benefit, above and beyond the fact that the Commissioner gets to make the decision and then determine whether he made the right decision: The in-house appeal process keeps most of the arguments and facts out of the public eye.
In contrast to courtroom proceedings, which are subject to full public exposure, the only way we’ll know anything about anything that happens during the Saints’ bounty appeals is if someone leaks something.
Here’s a little something that has leaked in advance of the hearings.
According to a source with knowledge of the situation, the appeals may consist of arguments based on the fundamental difference between the placement of “bounties” on players and the actual infliction of injury. If, in other words, the offer of cash for a “cart-off” didn’t actually result in a player being carted off, the situation arguably becomes a case of intent without a crime.
Then there’s the possibility that, as it relates to the infliction of injuries, the bounty concept was more hyperbole than reality, with the promise of payments for knocking offensive players out of the game simply a device for getting the defensive players properly motivated to play with reckless abandon and appropriate zeal, different in form but no different in substance from the many other ways that teams get players fired up before games.
Also, one or more of the appeals could focus on the unexplored question of whether other teams did the same or similar things, and thus whether it’s objectively fair to nail the Saints simply because, more than two years after the league investigated the situation and got nowhere, a whistleblower blew the case open. Nailing the Saints for something that other teams quite possibly have been doing, but that the NFL hasn’t fully investigated, could be painted as inequitable.
Moreover, there’s an unwillingness to accept without scrutiny the work of NFL Security, which somehow was duped by the Saints in 2010, and which otherwise was unable to catch the Saints without the help of a whistleblower. The raw data generated by NFL Security undoubtedly will be studied and picked apart and, wherever justified, attacked as flawed.
In the end, it may not matter, given that the same office that imposed the penalties is reviewing them. At this point, any softening of the penalties will create the impression that the league has decided to tolerate bounties.
So while it may not be fair for the Saints to be the scapegoats, the league has little choice. And the league will undoubtedly justify the punishment based on the fact that the Saints lied about the existence of the bounty system in 2009 — and that the Saints continued to brazenly use bounties for two seasons after the league investigated the situation.