[Editor's note: The eight-page, single-spaced letter from Commissioner Roger Goodell affirming the suspensions of the four players accused of involvement in the Saints' bounty program raises several intriguing points, arguments, and circumstances. We're breaking them up into separate posts, because there's not much else to write about during the league's annual dead zone.]
Lost at times in the analysis of the Saints alleged bounty program is the rigid, almost military hierarchy that brings structure to the inherent chaos of football.
Coaches give orders, and players follow orders.
In this case, with former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams implementing a system that he reportedly used in at least two of the other cities where he coached, what options did his players have? And so, at the June 18 appeal hearing, NFLPA outside counsel Jeffrey Kessler aruged that the players “simply followed what their supervisors directed them to do.”
Setting aside for now the inconsistency between claiming there was no bounty system and arguing that the players were simply following orders when they participated in a pay-for-performance system that rewarded players for clean, legal hits that coincidentally caused injury, the argument has some basic appeal.
Commissioner Roger Goodell disagrees. In the July 3 letter upholding the suspensions of Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, Saints defensive end Will Smith, Packers defensive end Anthony Hargrove, and Browns linebacker Scott Fujita, Goodell initially points out that “[n]o evidence was offered at the [June 18] hearing to support that assertion, and it was contradicted by multiple individuals interviewed during the investigation.”
Goodell then explains that he “took into account the actions of the coaches” in assessing discipline.
Of course, some would say that a one-year suspension for Vilma constitutes a much stiffer punishment than the one-year suspension imposed on Saints coach Sean Payton. The difference between players’ careers and coaches’ careers resembles the distinction between dog years and human years. Payton can coach two decades or more after his suspension ends; Vilma after sitting out an entire season may be done.
Then there’s Hargrove, suspended half of a year for lying to investigators. Though he has never admitted to lying, he submitted a written declaration reflecting that Gregg Williams and Joe Vitt had told Hargrove what to say when meeting with the league back in 2010.
“Assuming for the moment that he was given such a direction,” Goodell writes, “it does not excuse Mr. Hargrove from being truthful to NFL investigators when asked specifically about the existence of the program. Mr. Hargrove’s conduct was all the more troubling because if he had been forthcoming when questioned in 2010, the program — and the enhanced risk of injury that it entailed — could have been stopped much sooner.”
Of course, that same point applies to Williams, who has been suspended at least one year, and Vitt, who has been suspended only six games.
Let’s focus on that for a second. Hargrove allegedly lied to investigators, and Vitt alleged lied to investigators. But the guy with the lower rank got a bigger suspension, a gap that is magnified by the inherently shorter nature of the playing career.
Then there’s the reality that players who don’t follow orders can quickly find themselves ostracized, regardless of whether it’s an order they shouldn’t have followed. At a time when the NFL is so intent on protecting those who secretly assisted the investigation from possible locker-room retaliation, why can’t the NFL acknowledge the basic reality that players who refuse to do what coaches tell them to do will see their dog-year careers instead mimic the lifespan of the mayfly?