The National Football League isn't a sports league anymore. It's a monopoly.
Commissioner Roger Goodell proved with his punishment of the New Orleans Saints that the NFL isn't trying to improve its on-field product or better serve its fans. Now that pro football crushes all other sports in attendance, TV ratings, and profitability, the NFL is in the full-time business of preserving its monopoly.
The Saints lost All-Pro guard Carl Nicks and receiver Robert Meachem to free agency, and franchise quarterback Drew Brees will have to play on a one-year franchise tag deal. On top of that, the NFL has now suspended head coach Sean Payton for an entire year and GM Mickey Loomis for eight games. The Saints were also stripped of two second-round draft picks.
All this, of course, was considered fair punishment for the Saints' bounty program. If you've somehow not heard: Throughout 2009 and 2010, then-Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams coordinated a bounty pool by which players would get under-the-table bonuses for big plays—and knocking opponents out of games.
That represented a huge threat to the NFL's monopoly.
The league is in the midst of a multi-year effort to improve player safety. Improved player safety helps keep their most marketable players on the field, makes the game less brutal to watch and sounds great as a PR talking point. Above all, though, a focus on safety may help the NFL forestall lawsuits from former players.
Finding out that players still reward each other for injuring opponents blows away the idea that professional football is a safe, family-friendly game—and potentially makes it easier for a judge to find the NFL liable for the culture of violence it fosters.
Wait, players "still" reward each other? Yes, still: Gregg Williams did not invent this concept with the Saints. Not only have bounties, in some form, been part of the NFL for decades, recently retired players have been coming out of the woodwork to confirm they remain widespread.
As Yahoo! Sports' Doug Farrar said while defending Goodell's actions, "Goodell and the league knew full well, and for a good long time, that players were being paid under the table for tackles meant to injure opponents." So for years, Goodell willingly looked the other way, waiting for a team to really cross the line so he could make an example of it.
The Saints crossed one line by involving the coaches, but that's not the real offense. The real offense was lying to the NFL.
Clearly, we were lied to. We investigated this back in 2010, we were told it was not happening, it continued for another two years until we got credible evidence late in the 2011 season and we were able to identify significant information that verified from multiple sources that this was going on for a three-year period.
Goodell also said in his official statement:
A combination of elements made this matter particularly unusual and egregious. When there is targeting of players for injury and cash rewards over a three-year period, the involvement of the coaching staff, and three years of denials and willful disrespect of the rules, a strong and lasting message must be sent that such conduct is totally unacceptable and has no place in the game.
But in Goodell's zeal to stamp out all bounties forever and drop a train on those who tried to stymie the investigation, there's been some collateral damage.
This is the Superdome in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It was used as an emergency shelter, and some horrific things happened there. As the LA Times reported, the Superdome was awash in trash and human waste. People died inside the facility. At the time, Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk eloquently argued that the Superdome should be razed, as it "shouldn't" and "couldn't" ever be used as a place of entertainment and recreation ever again.
Instead of razing the Superdome and moving the team, New Orleans rebuilt. Their first game back in the Superdome was a joyous celebration of the city's recovery, and the Saints' 23-3 demolition of the Falcons was a harbinger of the on-field recovery to come. Payton and Brees, together for the first time, led the reborn Saints to a 10-6 record and the NFC South division title.
Since taking over as coach and quarterback, Payton and Brees have gone 62-34 and delivered New Orleans' first-ever Super Bowl championship. With the Superdome set to host Super Bowl XLVII, its regular tenant will have to make do without the coach—and the quarterback begrudgingly playing on a franchise-tag deal instead of a new long-term contract.
Key starters Carl Nicks and Robert Meachem have departed via free agency, Brees may be playing his last season as a Saint and two of the high draft picks that might replace them have been taken away. Roger Goodell's punishment could end the Saints' brief run of glory and send them back into the doldrums they so recently escaped.
Who pays for this? The fans—the people of New Orleans, who struggled and fought so hard to keep the Saints in town, who rebuilt the stadium and (much) of their city and who fill the Superdome week after week. As Dave Zirin of Edge of Sports said on Twitter, Roger Goodell has turned their season tickets "into confetti."
Of all the teams to make an example out of, of all the fanbases to punish, why the Saints? Why New Orleans?
The Saints, though, are hardly the only team to face the fickle wrath of the league office. Recently, the NFL nixed nearly $50 million of the Redskins' and Cowboys' combined cap space because Goodell decided their uncapped spending during the uncapped year was somehow out of bounds. With the NFLPA's permission to rewrite the CBA on the fly, Goodell granted himself the power to radically alter these teams' ability to get better in the offseason.
Goodell's justification was "competitive balance," like the ephemeral "basketball reasons" that NBA commissioner David Stern cited in his unprecedented vetoing of an apparently legal trade. Yet neither the Cowboys nor the Redskins have made the playoffs since committing these apparently egregious shortcuts to victory.
When Goodell came to Detroit for a town hall meeting, Lions fans asked how the officials could call games so inconsistently; Goodell replied that NFL officials "get 99 percent of all calls right." We know NFL officials go through strict review and grading processes that annually decide which officials work the playoffs and which officials won't be retained for the following year. Therefore, they aren't all nearly perfect all the time. "99 percent" is not only a lie—it's a lie we know is a lie. So what's Goodell hiding?
If there's a problem with competitive balance in the NFL, it's located squarely behind the commissioner's desk. How can fans invest themselves emotionally and financially when they know their team could be hacked down by Goodell's scythe tomorrow?
Goodell and the NFL don't care. Their job isn't to make sure the fines for off-field conduct are consistent or the officiating is consistent or the league's CBA and bylaws are upheld. Their job isn't to foster competitive balance. Their job isn't even to make the the NFL more compelling or entertaining of a spectator sport.
Their job is to protect the monopoly.
That's why Goodell flew to Washington last week to meet with the FCC and explain to them why it's so important the NFL be able to keep its fans from watching games that don't sell out.
In the midst of free agency, with all of the crazy news and rumors flying around, and even the Saints' bounty scandal itself, Goodell's top priority was to ensure the NFL can prevent customers from consuming their product. That's not something the commissioner of a sports league would do—it's something a monopolist would do.