Get used to it, Saints fans: Fallout from the so-called "Bountygate" scandal that has gripped the entire Saints organization will be felt for a long, long time. That the Saints will be "made an example" for the rest of the NFL is inevitable; the only things not yet known are who will be penalized and how severely. By the end of the month NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who says player safety is a top concern, is expected to announce a series of fines, suspensions and forfeited draft picks. Most expect Goodell to treat this scandal as one of the most egregious violations in NFL history. Many say the penalties, which are not appealable, will be so harsh that other teams will be scared straight. That's as it should be. What should not be is a whitewash that ignores evidence of similar programs at other teams.
Any system that rewards players for deliberately injuring key opponents is reprehensible, grossly unsportsmanlike and an affront to the game itself. The very idea that players, who consider themselves part of a professional fraternity, would seek to cripple fellow athletes is anathema to the idea of healthy competition. That a coach would not only encourage such a system but also participate directly in it, as former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams admits to doing, makes the scandal even more sickening. Football is a violent game, but it's supposed to be controlled violence. That's why there are rules. And referees. Athletes are already paid very highly. Paying them extra to deliberately harm opponents, especially under a clandestine system of "side bets" (as one former player put it), warrants severe penalties.
The scandal could not have come at a worse time for the Saints. The team was in the final stages of trying to negotiate a contract with star quarterback Drew Brees and other key players when news of the bounty system broke. The team quickly put "the franchise tag" on Brees, who reportedly is none too happy about it. Now, as the Saints try to reach deals with other stars, the entire organization has become distracted by the scandal — and hampered by the specter of yet-to-be-announced fines that may cost the team money it needs for salaries and signing bonuses.
The scandal also comes on the heels of the Saints' relatively newfound respect in the league — and hard-won goodwill in the hearts and minds of fans everywhere. After decades as one of the NFL's punching bags, the 2010 Super Bowl winners became heroes. They symbolized not only the triumph of an underdog team but also the comeback of an entire city that had been brought to its knees by Hurricane Katrina. They weren't just winners on the field; they also were good guys off the field — role models who gave back to their communities and inspired others to do likewise. Now they have gone from saints to sinners, and it will take a while to regain the admiration and respect of fans outside New Orleans.
All that said, there's a bigger picture that the NFL should not ignore: the fact that many retired players have said that locker room-based bonus systems are common practice throughout the league. "Every single team does that," says ESPN analyst Darren Woodson, a former player. Former defensive lineman Trevor Pryce, who never played under Williams, called it "pretty much standard operating procedure." If that's true, then fairness dictates that the NFL thoroughly investigate all teams for any evidence of illegal rewards for on-field performance. To limit the investigation — and the penalties — to the Saints makes them not so much an example as a scapegoat.
So far, the NFL appears to be treating this as a "Gregg Williams problem" by investigating only teams that once employed the Saints former defensive coordinator. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello says the league will look into "any relevant info regarding rules being broken." By now dozens of former players have said other teams ran some kind of illegal bonus system. If that's not "relevant info," then there's something seriously wrong at NFL headquarters. Could it be that Goodell, who wants to avoid potential liability from retired players' lawsuits over allegations that the league turned a blind eye to player safety for years, also wants to tamp down any "evidence" that could help the plaintiffs?
Goodell reportedly wants the Saints' penalties to make a statement about player safety and the integrity of the game. If that's true, then nothing less than a league-wide investigation of bounties and similar reward systems will do. Anything else is just PR.