Five days after the conclusion of the 2012 draft, the New Orleans Saints Bountygate scandal returned to once again dominate the media landscape of the NFL.
For some time, we have known the consequences that the coaches involved in the bounty program would face. What we have not known, however, was the fates of the players who participated in the program.
On Wednesday morning, the NFL finally revealed the punishments that the 20-something players involved in the program would face. Four players—two of whom have signed on with other organizations—face multi-game suspensions:
- DE Will Smith, still with the Saints, is suspended for four games;
- LB Scott Fujita, now with the Cleveland Browns, is suspended for three games;
- DL Anthony Hargrove, now with the Green Bay Packers, is suspended for eight games; and
- LB Jonathan Vilma, still with the Saints, is suspended for the entire 2012 season.
All of the suspensions are without pay, and can be appealed directly to commissioner Roger Goodell within the next three days. Every indication seems to point to those appeals being filed, although since there will be no independent arbitrator involved the players likely have a much smaller chance of succeeding than they might otherwise.
And the other players who were proved beyond a reasonable doubt to be involved in the program? For them, there will be no punishment beyond the consequences of their participation in the bounty program becoming public knowledge.
There are plenty of head-scratching moments about the whole process such as the suspended players finding out their fates not from the NFL, but rather by watching SportsCenter.
That being said, there are also two glaring, hugely concerning problems with the punishments that were handed out.
The suspensions, whatever they were, should have been announced before the NFL draft took place. Because of the delay, three separate teams—the Saints, the Browns and the Packers—were unaware of the full extent of positional needs that they might need to fill for part or all of the season.
Certainly, other teams around the league who have signed players who were among the “as many as 27 Saints” who allegedly participated in the program must be breathing sighs of relief that their men weren’t singled out—and therein lies the second, bigger problem.
By only taking punitive action against four of the players involved, the NFL has perhaps unintentionally condoned participation in other, similar bounty programs around the league. The message certainly seems to be that as long as a player does not play a key role in orchestrating such a program, it is not a violation of league rules of conduct to participate in it.
That has the potential to change the whole landscape of the NFL. Imagine how other teams around the league might take such a lenient ruling to heart.
Putting together a motivational bounty program similar to the one that the Saints had set up doesn’t take a lot of work, or even a lot of money—the cash rewards through the system that had been set up were a minute amount compared to the players’ base salaries.
Even with small monetary awards, setting up such a program has the potential to be a huge motivator to an entire defense. Now that the NFL has deemed that only the players that they have determined to be the most involved will face any punishment, how hard would it be to put the idea into a few second- or third-string defenders’ heads that orchestrating a similar program could benefit the whole team?
This theoretical model is even better if those players will be free agents whose contracts the coaching staff have no intention of renewing, or if they are players who might be attractive in a trade with another team.
Since the punishment is dealt to the player directly in the form of a suspension regardless of where he is currently playing, any team that would theoretically orchestrate a bounty program now has a road map for putting together a setup that will not only benefit them in the short term and allow them to skirt the worst of the fallout later, but also potentially handicap other teams around the league when their newly-acquired players are suspended.
Sure, big pieces of the coaching staff may get caught in the crossfire, but the interesting thing about the NFL is that there is always someone else who is perfectly capable of stepping up and following the laid-out plans that the previous coach has put together before his suspension.
Of course, such a scenario is all hypothetical right now. But in a league where even the slightest advantage over the other team is a big deal, there will be those coaches and players who won’t hesitate to take advantage of a loophole as big as the one that the NFL has given them.
Given how rabid Roger Goodell has been about player safety and the gravity of the allegations regarding the bounty program, it is unbelievable that the vast majority of the participating players did not face at least some sort of consequences, even if they had been limited to fines.
The New Orleans Saints may have been in the wrong in running the program in the first place, but the NFL definitely dropped the ball when it came to actually taking a stand for their own beliefs. Only time will tell how various teams around the league will take advantage of that.