New Orleans Saints Bounty Scandal Exposes NFLPA Conflicts of Interest

Eric EdwardsContributor IIIMay 3, 2012

Linebacker Jonathan Vilma was hit with a 16 game suspension for his role in "Bounty Gate".
Linebacker Jonathan Vilma was hit with a 16 game suspension for his role in "Bounty Gate".Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The commissioner has finally handed down his punishments to the players he deemed most culpable in the bounty scandal that has rocked the New Orleans Saints franchise.

As expected, linebacker Jonathan Vilma was hardest hit, being slammed with a season long suspension starting from the time the Saints start their off-season training.

Vilma’s suspension runs from the moment the commissioner handed it down until the end of the upcoming Super Bowl, and the punishment will cost him a little over $2 million.

That’s a big hit for anyone to take, and especially hard for Vilma, as many analysts see him as being on the downside of his career. Vilma needed to get his money now, because there probably aren’t many more big paydays in his football future.

What has struck me about this situation more than anything else is the way the NFLPA has reacted to the scandal. I suppose the best way to say it is that the union’s response has been sort of curious, showing very little consistency.

Union leadership has found themselves in a very odd position as this scandal has unfolded. Faced with the unenviable position of having to protect players accused of offering bounties to injure other players, the NFLPA has seemed to take the side of the accused at the expense of the targeted.

From the outside looking in, the union looks more interested here in trying to squelch the disciplinary power of the commissioner than in looking after the well-being of all of its members.

Commissioner Roger Goodell has taken a tough stance on player safety.
Commissioner Roger Goodell has taken a tough stance on player safety.Jamie Squire/Getty Images

I understand the inclination of the union to bristle at the near-total power the commissioner has been given when it comes to player conduct. I am not a fan of the way the commissioner is set up in some cases as judge, jury, appellate judge, and executioner.

The appeals process cannot be fair if the same person who handed down the initial punishment is also the person to sit in judgment of the justice of a particular punishment.

However, the NFLPA had an opportunity to address that situation during the lockout and the crafting of a new collective bargaining agreement. The failure to do so then should not be addressed right now, especially with this set of facts.

No matter how right the NFLPA may be about the need for an independent arbiter to hear appeals of on-field and off-field player infractions, this case does nothing to help them advance that position.

The problem the NFLPA has is that all the evidence points to Vilma being as intimately involved in the bounty system as Gregg Williams, down to the two occasions where he put up separate $10,000 bounties on Kurt Warner and Brett Favre. The idea that Vilma is somehow a victim of the system here smacks of union tone-deafness.

Further, the decision to rush to fight the suspensions makes the union look as if it cares more about the rights of the bounty hunters than the careers of the victims. Luckily, neither Warner nor Favre were seriously injured in the games against the Saints, but they very well could have been.

And today, the union looks like it is discounting the malicious actions of some its members towards others, all for the sake of taking Roger Goodell down a peg.

The NFLPA is in a battle of perceptions and it is being thoroughly whipped. The NFL has been able to gain the moral high ground by trumpeting the need to stress player safety and protecting the integrity of “The Shield."

The NFLPA, in contrast, looks to be saying that it doesn’t care what its members do to one another, so long as the commissioner is stopped from meting out the punishments for wrongdoing.

I understand the NFLPA needs to be seen protecting its members in the face of what they feel is an overreach of the commissioner’s office. But if that battle must be fought, the NFLPA should have sought firmer ground than this to fight it on.