When the NFL first disclosed the existence of a three-year bounty system maintained and administered by the Saints, one of the immediate concerns became the reaction in New Orleans to the punishments that were, at the time, still undetermined. Over the past six seasons, a once-downtrodden franchise had become one of the proudest in the NFL, and in February the Super Bowl returns to the Superdome for the first time in 11 years.
In the immediate aftermath of the rash of suspensions, including the one-year banishment of head coach Sean Payton, there were no signs of any local anger or resentment toward the team, with a 98-percent season-ticket renewal, ongoing expansion of the waiting list, and a full sellout of all suites for the 2012 season.
It’s also believed that folks in New Orleans won’t revolt against the Super Bowl, and that more than enough will volunteer to do whatever needs to be done to do justice to the week-long party that will interrupt the even longer Mardi Gras party.
The bad news is that the citizens aren’t happy with the league, and specifically with Commissioner Roger Goodell. As MDS pointed out last night, fans rallied on Sunday in support of Payton. As Peter King explains it in MMQB, with a picture of Jimmy Buffett wearing a “Free Sean Payton” T-shirt, “There’s a groundswell of anger in New Orleans, from what I can tell. Where it’ll lead, I don’t know. But I know New Orleans. It’s not going to go away, regardless of how Goodell rules in the four appeals he must consider beginning Tuesday. . . . Remember the booing Goodell got at the NFL Draft last year? That could sound charitable compared to the reception he could hear in New Orleans during Super Bowl week.”
Before any Saints fans go over the top in their anger toward Goodell, two important facts need to be remembered. First, the league office (with Goodell serving as No. 2 to former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue) promptly stepped in and slammed the door on any possibility of owner Tom Benson using the devastation of Katrina as a pretext to move the Saints out of town.
Goodell addressed the potential frustrations of Saints fans at the league meetings last week. “I understand the frustration of the Saints fans, and I have great respect for them,” Goodell said. “We will be there with them for Super Bowl at the conclusion of this coming season. I worked very closely as we were getting the Saints reestablished after the hurricane, so I saw firsthand the Saints passion and their fans’ passion. I clearly understand that frustration, but everyone has to understand that there are 32 teams, and everybody is going to have to operate by the same rules. If we don’t do that, the integrity of the game, and what fans love about the game, will be impacted negatively. And that is my responsibility.”
That leads to the second point. Saints fans need to realize that the stewards of the franchise were on notice in 2010 that the league was aware of bounty allegations. The persons interviewed by NFL Security lied about it at the time. To close the book on the situation, the organization needed only to abandon the bounty program. Instead, the league later determined that bounties continued for two full seasons, in direct defiance of the league office.
There are still plenty of chapters left in this book, not the least of which will be the suspensions imposed on the defensive players who were funded and/or received payments from the bounty system. It’s one thing to suspend guys who don’t wear the uniform on Sundays. When the men who don the fleur-de-lis get forced to the sidelines by the league office, the fans will be more than flabbergasted.