The football mellow that the Big Easy has been riding since the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl in 2009 season has been severely harshed.
During his tenure with the New Orleans Saints, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams designed, oversaw, and even helped fund a scheme that paid bounties to defensive players for making plays that caused injury to opponents. Following an extensive investigation, the NFL has meted out punishments that have succeeded in shocking even those who expected league repercussions to be severe.
Williams has been suspended indefinitely, a move that pretty much blights his career hopes for a long time to come and screws his new team, the St. Louis Rams. Saints head coach Sean Payton, who was aware of the bounties and did nothing to stop the practice, has been suspended for a year without pay. The team's general manager, Mickey Loomis, who knew of the practice and failed to end it when told to by the Saints' owner, is suspended for eight games. That should give Loomis time to work on his resume because it is a rare owner who wouldn't can his ass for disobeying a direct order to end an illegal bounty system that would expose the team to punishment such as this. Joe Vitt, assistant to the head coach, was suspended for six games and fined $100,000. In addition to that, the team has been fined $500,000 and lost second-round draft picks in the 2012 draft and the 2013 draft. Punishments for individual players who participated in the bounty program have not been announced at this time.
In his statement regarding the punishments the league handed out, Commissioner Roger Goodell said:
"Bounty programs have no place in our game. They are incompatible with our efforts to promote sportsmanship, fair play, and player safety."
Since word of the League's investigation in the Saints bounty program came to light, we've talked a lot about the toll that practice takes on opposing players. Here at DN we've reviewed the toll that the Saints/Vikings NFC Championship game had on our team, not only in terms of ending the Minnesota Vikings' incredible 2009 season, but also in terms of the injuries piled up during that game (Brett Favre, Sidney Rice, Cedric Griffin). Vikings fans likely aren't alone in that pastime, I imagine fans of other teams around the league are reviewing games their teams played against the Saints and wondering "what if" too.
Well, here are a couple more "what ifs". What if you're a Saints offensive player who had nothing to do with the bounty program? And, what if you're a long-suffering Saints fan who bought into the Bayou Messiah vibe that the Saints (and the NFL) embraced?
More about how the bounty system damage keeps going after the jump.
Make no mistake, my full sympathies are with the players of other teams who were hurt because of this despicable practice, people whose short careers may have gotten shorter, or may have permanent neurological damage from concussions they sustained while playing the Saints. But I can't help thinking about how the Saints' defensive players' apparent devotion to the idea of winning at any cost, even if that cost is someone else's health, also hurt their comrades on the offensive side of the ball and the people who filled the Super Dome cheering for them.
A few years back a close friend of mine was working in France and she said that one of the business metaphors frequently used to try to encourage a sense of working together was American football. She said the French business people used American football as a metaphor because they felt it was one of the best examples of nothing getting accomplished truly on one's own. Even the most novice football fan would probably agree, nobody in American football carries the show single-handedly. Just as a combination of players can help a single player make a play, so too can a single player undo the work of everyone else on the field.
Well, in New Orleans, the defense just tainted and, basically, undid everything that the other players on the team worked for during that Championship* season. Drew Brees may have had nothing to do with the bounties, heck, he might not have even known about the bounty program, but his legacy as a player has the same asterisk next to it that Darren "X Marks the Spot" Sharper has.
A lot of players talking about what they miss after they retire from football say they miss the camaraderie of the locker room. That's one of the reasons Brett Favre gave for returning to the Vikings in 2010 after the pounding he took during that NFC Championship game against the Saints. But the non-bounty program players on the Saints have to be feeling like their comrades just dinged them in the nuts.
The same goes for the Saints' fans. In 2006 New Orleans was still fresh from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina when the Saints brought Drew Brees in from sunny San Diego. Brees and Payton had a great connection that produced some great on-field play and it gave Saints fans something to enjoy, something good to identify with--the sense that their team was coming back swinging just like they were. The team might not have originated all the messianic overtones that went along with choosing to stay in the rebuilding city, but they certainly benefited from them. So did the NFL, which loved and promoted the inspirational storyline that mirrored the Saints journey with that of the damaged, but recovering, city.
Now Saints fans who bought into that sense of hope that team fostered are finding out that the success that made them hopeful was created in part by an organized system that encouraged thuggery over skill or sportsmanship or human decency. I don't care where you live or who you cheer for, that's disappointing. Sure, football players and coaches aren't, well, saints, they're human beings and likely to make mistakes, but, finding out the players and coaches you cheered for made the mistake of thinking it was okay to willfully and intentionally hurt opposing players...that blows. The Saints organization, that basked in all the fawning attention and accolades from the NFL and the rest of the country for sticking with their hurricane-ravaged city, needs to beg forgiveness from the city of New Orleans and all their fans.
Shoot, Saints owner Tom Benson should be wearing a bag on his head the way his team's fans did back when the Saints were at their worst. Seems fitting.
The NFL is a business selling sports entertainment and yet, it's also more than that. Fans are customers, but they're also an integral part of the experience, a factor that has to be accounted for during every home game. Behavior like "Bountygate" does more than make revenues dip or hurt players, it breaks faith with fans and takes away the simple enjoyment of seeing great athletes play a great game.