As ironic as it is, the Saints aren’t exactly acting saint-like these days. It seems as if one charge or accusation after another is surfacing, each more shocking and damaging than the last. The Saints have had multiple rough patches in their history, such as being known as the “Aints” when they were constantly losing or enduring Hurricane Katrina, but this bounty scandal is unprecedented in NFL history. In recent years the Saints have made a charge into the elite echelon of NFL teams, but sadly one cannot simply ignore the parallel between the Saints rise and all of these illegal violations and activities. What looked like one of the new “sexy” teams in the league (with a revelation at QB in Drew Brees) and one of the best young coaches in the game in Sean Payton now looks like a dirty team with a cheating coach. So before we pass final judgment upon these rogue Saints, let’s examine the timeline of events that have led the Saints to this point and provide some context for and commentary on the situation.
On March 2, 2012, the NFL’s security department released a report stating that they had uncovered an illegal payment program instituted by then Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams. The report cited cash bonuses such as $1,500 for a “knockout hit” and $1,000 if the player had to be carted off the field. Furthermore, Williams, Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma and others in the organization placed cash “bounties” for knocking out certain players on the other teams like quarterbacks Brett Favre and Kurt Warner.
“The payments here are particularly troubling because they involved not just payments for ‘performance,’ but also for injuring opposing players,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement released by the league. “The bounty rule promotes two key elements of NFL football: player safety and competitive integrity.”
Then, on March 21, the NFL announced its suspensions for the Saints coaches and front office executives. Head Coach Sean Payton received a one-year suspension, Assistant Coach Joe Vitt received six games, General Manager Mickey Loomis received eight games without pay, and the organization lost two second-round draft picks and was fined $500,000. Gregg Williams, the architect of the bounty program, who signed on to become the defensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams in the offseason, is suspended indefinitely.
On May 2, the NFL announced the suspensions of four players who were directly involved in the bounty program. Former Saint and current Packers defensive end Anthony Hargrove received eight games, former Saint and current Cleveland Brown Scott Fujita received three games, Saints defensive end Will Smith received four games and the aforementioned current Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma was tagged with an entire season suspension.
“I am shocked and extremely disappointed by the NFL’s decision to suspend me for the 2012 season,” Vilma said in a statement. “Goodell has refused to share any of the supposed evidence he claims supports this unprecedented punishment.”
All four players have announced that they are appealing their suspensions. This particular appeal situation is very complex, so I will try to separate it as clearly as I can. There are two issues that arise with the players’ appeals. The first issue is the recent grievance the NFL Players Association has filed stating that technically Commissioner Goodell cannot punish these players for actions that took place before the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) was signed last August. This issue was heard by arbitrator Shyam Das at the NFL league offices on May 16 and was adjourned without a ruling or setting another meeting date.
The second issue is whether Roger Goodell, instead of a neutral arbitrator, should be allowed to oversee both the punishment and appeal processes. An arbitration hearing has been set for May 30 to decide whether Goodell will oversee the appeals process (basically meaning the punishments will stand) or the NFL Players Association’s proposed arbitrator Stephen Burbank. However, if the arbitrator rules that Goodell cannot punish the players because their actions happened before the new CBA was signed, then the second issue will be unnecessary and the players will not be suspended.