If the NFL is at all worried about the potential for backlash from fans who think the league has been heavy-handed in the Saints bounty investigation, then the folks inside the league office probably weren’t laughing when they watched Thursday’s edition of Late Show With David Letterman.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees appeared on Thursday night’s show and bashed the league office for its handling of the case, accusing the NFL of caring more about paying lip service to player safety than about getting to the truth of what happened. And the truth, according to Brees, is that Saints players weren’t engaged in a pay-to-injure scheme, despite what the NFL may say.
“I mean, just the whole process itself and the investigation I feel like has been extremely unfair. Unfortunately, it seems like it’s been more of a media campaign than it is actually finding the truth to the matter,” Brees said. “Put forth the facts, the truth, and if indeed there was a pay-to-injure scheme, then people will get punished, and if there’s not, then let’s exonerate these men because, at this point, it seems like it’s a smear campaign. We’re dragging them through the mud. We’re ruining their reputations and careers with no true evidence.”
Those comments aren’t much different than the comments that Brees and other Saints players have made in other forums. But for Brees to go on what is normally a lighthearted comedy show and make those highly charged comments brings the message of the Saints players — their belief that the NFL botched its bounty investigation — to a new audience.
And that’s the audience the league really has to be careful about alienating. The hard-core football fans who follow all the NFL news all offseason long love football so much that they’re going to watch when the season starts no matter what actions the league office may take. It’s the more casual football fans, the ones who only hear what’s going on in the NFL during the offseason when they happen to catch it on a show like Letterman’s, that the league risks losing. And when one of the NFL’s best and most popular players is openly questioning the league’s integrity to that kind of audience, that’s just the kind of offseason distraction the NFL hates.
Brees’s appearance wasn’t all about slamming the Saints, and there were some laughs along the way. Letterman got off a good line, telling Brees that if he’s fed up in New Orleans he can get a job with the Jets, and Brees drew laughs with his response, saying the Jets have enough quarterbacks already. But the takeaway that most Letterman viewers will have from Brees’s appearance is that he’s a smart, thoughtful player who is mad as hell about how the NFL has treated his team and his teammates.
When Roger Goodell talks about the importance of “protecting the the shield,” he’s not talking about ripping the league in a public forum. But that’s exactly what Brees did. And many viewers likely concluded that Brees is exactly right.