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Updated: Don't Bleed the Saints

These are solely my opinions, and I do not recognize myself as an arbiter.

People who don't even watch football have been drown in the Saints "bounty" scandal over the past days, and pundits foresee an ominous punishment looming. Reproach that surpasses the 2007 Patriots which included fines, suspensions, and forfeiture of draft picks seems to be the consensus. This, to me, would be overblown.

Many of the punishments and rules Roger Goodell imposed throughout his tenure are objectively crafting a version of football that lacks ferocity. The NFL is transitioning to a safety oriented organization. In doing so, they are succumbing to the fate of overly correcting the sport's perceived flaws. Players have been fined severely over the last few years when the rules implemented were unclear. Goodell sent around a video which contained contradictions as to how fines and penalties were to be administered for illegal contact, only complicating matters with confusion. More complication is about to encounter the league.

Here, with New Orleans, the NFL has another opportunity to set the standard. I have little confidence that this opportunity can be met without attaining an undesired outcome, at least in part. It's clear that the league wants strict adherence to the rules to produce a product that encounters less injuries, but they have not exercised a coherent method in achieving that result. Goodell is going to drop the hammer hard in order to deter behavior similar to The Saints's. If the aforementioned reprimands are pursued it will hurt the Saints far worse than they deserve while intimidating players from leaving it all on the field.

It is difficult for me to distinguish proper course of action from unreasonable regulation because I am a Buccaneers fan. Tampa would obviously benefit from Saints players or staff receiving harsh suspensions. I would be ecstatic if New Orleans was deprived of a first round pick next year. They are already going to lose valuable players from salary cap implications, and ripping away their alternative to build for the future can only hinder them further. This is only my loyalty. Frankly, it is nothing more than selfish, short-sighted thinking.

Whether the Saints were the only team doing this is immaterial. Coaches were warned years ago that the practices were a per se violation of the rules, and they persisted. Evidence has surfaced that at least one player was targeted: Brett Favre by Jonathan Vilma for $10,000.00. Thus far, this is the only report that can be interpreted as an effort to injure a player and remove him from the contest in exchange for a reward. Other information implied that there was a general reward for big plays such as turnovers, as well as big hits. The reward for a big hit would be increased if the player on the receiving end did not return to the game, was knocked unconscious, or was carted off of the field.

Nothing at this point in time has been alleged that intentional illegal hits would garner a payout (I doubt this would be admitted if it were the case). Most say that this doesn't matter- offering cash and notoriety provides an incentive for tacklers to push the envelope at the least, or flagrantly disregard the rules at worst. This position comes from analyzing the circumstances to exhaustion and dismisses the inherent nature of the game.

Tedy Bruschi suggested on NFL Live that a fourth string linebacker at the bottom pay grade who only sees four plays a game would use the bounty system as a vehicle to injure the quarterback if he were graced with a blitz assignment. Tedy often fails to impress when he speaks, as it normally involves fawning over New England or adding triviality to the conversation. He is not more useful here. He's suggesting that a player making nearly $300,000.00 annually would be more inclined to make an effort to hurt someone if pocket money were on the line. Bruschi misses the point, as money is not at issue. Fortunately Mike Golic jumped down his throat.

Golic said, and I agree, that a defender attempts to hit opponents as hard as possible when given the opportunity. A defender wants to intimidate blockers by establishing a physical presence. A defender wants to separate the ball from the ballcarrier. This can be done with big, legal hits. Players use the framework of the rules to their advantage. When it was legal, Golic said he would always land on a player where he could. Your job as a defensive player is to inflict pain, not to injure the competition. The pennies offered do not push people over the edge.

Golic also suggested the notoriety of being "that guy" on Monday as motivation. The player who gets to stand in front of the room and receive the cash and accolades feels a sense of accomplishment and worth. That player gets a reputation among his team and the league as being a force. Providing that the bounty system creates this is also a weak argument. ESPN gives much more notoriety with their segments of "Jacked Up" and highlight reels glorifying powerful hits. Youtube is also peppered with big hit montages because that is what fans crave. Illegal hits only receive negative attention, which brings me to my next point: fines for illegal hits are given away more freely than ever, and they drastically outweigh any financial benefits a player will receive from the bounty (often times by 40 to 1). It doesn't make any sense for a player with a minimum contract to play fast and loose with the rules when a fine is 15% of his salary.

Duplicitous behavior is at issue. The Saints should be penalized for violating the rules and lying about it. Sean Payton and Greg Williams were caught and persisted to conduct themselves in a manner they understood to be punishable. If a suspension is dolled out, those two are the only individuals deserving. Suspending athletes is overreacting. When a player is suspended they not only are restricted from playing but they lose their game checks- that's two punishments under the guise of one. Athletes who played cleanly should not be punished. Those who acted as Vilma allegedly did are deserving of the reprimands, which should exclusively be fines. As far as anything that was done on the field, there should be no retroactive penalties. A hit was either egregious or it wasn't; if the league doesn't take action when it occurred it is unfair to reach backward.

Lastly, there is a difference between adding to a pool for hard and clean hits versus offering money for someone to be injured by a blindsided cheap shot. Both are violations of the rule, yet the difference is plain: one supports competitive gameplay while the other encourages breaking the rules, violating the trust of your opponent, and nefariously jeopardizing careers. If evidence surfaces of both, the latter should be much more harshly penalized than the former.

The NFL claims they are attempting to preserve league integrity. Ultimately, their efforts only cripple defensive tenacity. Players on that side of the ball benefit from harboring resilient nastiness much more than their offensive counterparts. Suspending players because they rewarded one another for ambitious, whole-hearted play is hardly relevant to the problem the league seeks to prevent. Those who tackle maliciously are dealt with as they play. Coaches and players who shirk their responsibilities or conspire wantonly deserve the leagues logically tempered ire.

The Saints are going to be thrashed however this turns out. At the very least I'm hopeful it does not result in the loss of any selections this April. That is the harshest penalty the league can dole out and should be reserved for teams who seek unfair competitive advantages. A small part of me would delight in the event that a division rival is without a first round pick this and next year. If it spawns trepidation inside would-be tacklers, however, the game will lose more of its majesty.


A word on the criminality of the actions. When sports law is involved, especially in football, the go to case is Hackbart v. Cincinnati. In this instance, Dale Hackbart was playing FS for Denver and Charles Clark was a FB for the Bengals. Clark was covered in the endzone by Hackbart, and Denver intercepted the pass. Hackbart blocked Clark and Hackbart fell to the ground. On one knee, Hackbart watched the remainder of the play. Out of frustration, Clark ran behind Hackbart and struck him in the back of the head, knocking them both to the ground. Both men finished the game, and there was no penalty called as no referee saw the incident. Ultimately, the court held that such an egregious breaking of the rules cannot be shielded by the implied consent defense. Though football is a violent game, when an individual plays outside of the rules in such a flagrant manner he can be held accountable in civil courts. Clark was not brought up on criminal charges.

The United States government largely leaves the NFL and other sports organizations to police themselves because of the violations of the game. Michael Vick would be allowed to sue Adalius Thomas for breaking his fibula back in '03 implied consent did not step in. Adalius Thomas would also face criminal charges for the same incident because of his recklessness on the play, but, that's essentially football. He didn't take someone down in the middle of the street but on a field.

The Saints situation requires the proof that people were being paid to break the rules and intentionally injure other players. It seems as though the intent to injure is plain. However, unless new evidence surfaces that involves condoning or encouraging the breaking of the rules to achieve their desired result, the 'bounty' does not rise to criminality. It certainly doesn't rise to a level where state or federal governments will get involved without that evidence, not even in civil courts. That evidence is going to have to come in the form of being rock solid. There will need to be overt statements made on recordings or in documents to seal that fate, and the process might still be handled internally especially if there is no particular player with a solid case to stand up against the Saints.

This has a very remote chance of being handled externally in any fashion with the information present. No case law in the NFL supports a criminal conviction for on field play as there needs to be an egregious act coupled with intent. Without that evidence, it's just players paying to play and hit hard. The evidence can be interpreted as injuries being ancillary, as the majority aim of the pool focused on splash plays and not injuries. The pool should be the main source of the punishment in that scenario, not the aim of playing physically.