Thursday, March 22, 2012

When a scapegoat wears black and gold

Posted By on Thu, Mar 22, 2012 at 7:40 AM

Hey, Who Dat Nation, now that you've polished off that third bloody mary in the wake of realizing that, yes, Sean Payton is suspended for the season. Mickey Loomis is suspended for eight games. Oh, and the team was fined $500,000 fine and lost two draft picks.

Ok, breathe, count to ten. Let's not have a repeat of yesterday. You know, all the shock followed by the outrage followed by the shock-rage and name-calling and blame-gaming and finger-pointing. Yes, the Saints have been scapegoated for a common practice among teams, even if money isn't always involved. Yes, Roger Goodell is a hypocritical suit who's probably just mad that he was lied to (and who should probably avoid coming to New Orleans any time soon). And yes, this may well be the saddest day in the Saints' team history.

But this is so much more because, thanks to the gravity of the punishments doled out and the message that this sends, the NFL and the game of football have been fundamentally changed. It just so happens that the Saints will be forever linked to this dark moment. Though none of what Payton, Loomis, former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams or any of the players did was criminal, this will be remembered on par with the 1918 Black Sox scandal and the NBA's Tim Donaghy mess; a moment when a league faced daunting questions about its integrity and, instead of facing the issues head on, chose a scapegoat to throw under the bus.

Ever since Goodell became commissioner, his primary objective has been to help the league come to terms with the fact that the game that makes it so rich and popular also disables, maims and outright kills its players at a shocking rate. For years, Goodell has led a P.R. blitz that included the advent of supposedly safer equipment, a hit-or-miss push for concussion awareness and a slew of rule changes designed to minimize the maliciousness of a game where one of the objectives is to hit an opposing player.

But that's what happens when you try to run a business based on making money off an inherently violent sport. And, like any business, the NFL is run by business people and, for a long time, football was in the business of brutality. But gone are the days of Chuck Bednarik standing over a player he just put on the way to the hospital, even if there is still a college football trophy named after Bednarik and even if the NFL still glorifies him on the league's official Web site. In an era where former players are suing the league en masse over whether it hid information about the effects of head trauma and there is growing concern among the general public about injuries, "player safety" has become the league's new catchphrase. This means less big hits and more rules.

Roger Goodell is a businessman through and through. He did not play football but cut his chops on the business side of the sport as it grew to be one of the most profitable sports leagues in the world. He knows that his business can't continue to succeed if people think football is a game played by violent mercenaries only out for each other's heads. That's what the word "bounty" conjures up in peoples minds and, by dropping the axe on the Saints, Goodell sends a message that the practice, no matter how prolific it was in the past, has come to an end.

Of course, it's an asinine message to send. That's why Goodell's critics have been quick to point out that the NFL has basically a 100% injury rate. Everyone who plays football, especially at the professional level, gets hurt. It's the brutal truth of a brutal game, but a truth that players accept that when they make the decision to play and sacrifice their bodies for a fleeting chance at glory.

But Roger Goodell doesn't want anyone thinking about that. He wants you thinking he's taking player safety very, very seriously and, if enough dirty players are punished and enough rules are changed, no one will ever get hurt playing football again. And if means taking a massive dump on the Saints' season, so be it.

Ok, it's about time for that fourth Bloody Mary. Make mine a double.

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