The Summer of Law necessarily will spill into the preseason.
With the Saints and Cardinals squaring off on Sunday night in Canton and the first full night of preseason games coming Thursday, the bounty case will land back in federal court on Friday, August 10, for oral arguments on the league’s effort to obtain a dismissal of the effort to overturn suspensions of Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, Saints defensive end Will Smith, Packers defensive end Anthony Hargrove, and Browns linebacker Scott Fujita.
It’s likely that Judge Helen G. Berrigan will render at that time (if not sooner) a ruling as to whether Vilma’s one-year suspension will be lifted until the lawsuit ends. She also may issue from the bench on Friday, August 10, a ruling on whether the suspensions will be upheld or overturned.
A flurry of legal filings landed in court on Friday, August 3; the New Orleans Times-Picayune has a summary of the filings but we’ll defer comment until we can analyze all of the documents. (First, we have to get all of the documents.)
The paperwork was filed a day before Commissioner Roger Goodell came the closest he ever has to acknowledging that the process of paying players for inflicting injury constitutes a bounty program, even if the hits are clean and legal and there was no specific intent to injure. “Well, the No. 1 thing is when you reward players for injuring other opponents, that’s a bounty,” Goodell said. “That’s not pay for performance, that’s a bounty. And that’s what the players and, I believe, [Saints linebackers] Coach [Joe] Vitt said occurred. And that’s what our evidence indicates. So when you’re doing that, anything that would target or reward people for injuring other players, that’s not part of football. That’s not what we’re teaching these kids, and it’s not what we’re going to do in the NFL.”
For reasons still not apparently clear, the league’s prior efforts to characterize the case seemed to focus on the notion that players entered the field of play with a specific plan to injure. If the NFL had from the get-go said clearly and plainly that: (1) the Saints offered money for legal hits that resulted in injury; (2) no intent to injure was required or necessary; and (3) the league’s Constitution and Bylaws specifically define such conduct as a “bounty,” even without specific intent to injure, then maybe there wouldn’t have been so much confusion.
The league’s failure to focus the analysis in such simple terms has allowed the NFLPA and players like Drew Brees to set the agenda by claiming that there was no “pay for injury” scheme because there was no intent to injure.
The truth is (or at least seems to be) that intent to injure doesn’t matter.
We’ve previously believed that the league shied away from explaining the situation in such simple terms because it could spark a debate regarding whether it’s fair to suspend players for receiving the equivalent of a helmet sticker for doing something they already had an incentive to do — hit the other guy hard enough to break his will, or one of his bones.
That’s football. The incentive to hit other players hard will be there regardless of whether the player gets a short stack of $100 bills or a skull-and-crossbones sticker on the back of his helmet. (Surely, college and high school teams give out stickers for hard, clean hits that knock an opponent out of the game.)
None of this means that the players will or won’t avoid their suspensions via litigation. Legal disputes routinely are resolved based on a somewhat warped reality of phrases and clauses and concepts. But we’re hoping that, eventually, the league and the Saints will comes to an agreement as to what this case is really about, and that the fans and the media then can discuss among themselves whether it’s appropriate to hammer the Saints for doing something that every team at nearly every level of the sport does — rewarding players for clean, legal hits that send those on the receiving end to the sidelines, whether for one play or the rest of the game.