After bringing the hammer down hard on the coaches, administration and future of the New Orleans Saints Wednesday, National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell clearly has one major job remaining in his discipline of those involved in the Saints bounty scandal: the players.
Goodell spared the 22 to 27 players involved in the case, for now. But it's clear from the tone of his statement in banning coach Sean Payton for a year and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams for at least that long, he's prepared to rule harshly on some of the players involved too.
Said Goodell: "I am profoundly troubled by the fact that players -- including leaders among the defensive players -- embraced this program so enthusiastically and participated with what appears to have been a deliberate lack of concern for the well-being of their fellow players. While all club personnel are expected to play to win, they must not let the quest for victory so cloud their judgment that they willingly and willfully target their opponents and engage in unsafe and prohibited conduct intended to injure players."
So why didn't Goodell include player discipline today? Two reasons seem likely:
1. He's attempting to keep a good relationship with De Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, by including Smith in the loop of those he has discussed the penalties with. Because the union is having its annual meetings in Florida late this week, Goodell likely wants to discuss the issue further with Smith after the meetings before making a final decision on player discipline.
2. One of the players who has admitted making contributions to a pay-for-performance pool, linebacker Scott Fujita, is now one of the most respected leaders of the union's 11-man Executive Board, and worked diligently to increase player safety in the 2011 negotiations for a new labor agreement with the owners. A source told Sports Illustrated earlier this month that Fujita and two other defensive leaders contributed between $2,000 and $10,000 to the performance/bounty pool the Saints defenders ran in 2009. It's likely the NFLPA would staunchly defend Fujita and other players accused by the league, and this could make the disciplining of players extremely sticky for the league.
The first reaction out of the box from a Saint seemed to ensure the players, if sanctioned, will appeal any harsh discipline. Soon after Goodell's ruling, cornerback Jabari Greer said he felt the NFL was "painting us as thugs.''
Added Greer: "The punishment that was imposed, it seems as if they are trying to destroy our season. They are trying to take away our leaders, take away our leadership. But it's not going to happen. We are New Orleans. We will be strong, we will get through this, we will fight through this, and we will win.''
The league charged that the Saints' bounty program paid players $1,500 for knocking a player out of a game, and $1,000 for a "cart-off,'' or a player helped off the field, as well as lesser rewards for individual plays. Those rewards, the league said, increased during the playoffs, and, as an example, the NFL has accused Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma of offering any player on the defense $10,000 for knocking Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre out of the NFC Championship Game in January 2010.
The bounties violated the league's $120.3 million salary cap as extra off-the-books compensation, number one, and also this specific portion of the league's constitution: "No bonuses or awards may be offered or paid for on-field misconduct (for example, personal fouls to, or injuries inflicted on, opposing players).''
Vilma seems like the player in most trouble with Goodell, and is almost certain to get a multi-game suspension for his brazen offer. But some other veterans, obviously, could be in trouble, including players still on the Saints roster. If Goodell has proof that multiple players funded bounties for injuring players, he could suspend or fine a slew of them.
That leads to questions about how severely the Saints will be impacted by the sanctions, apart from losing their head coach for a season and their highly respected general manager for half of the 2012 season. If there are multiple player suspensions for players still on the Saints, and they are not staggered but imposed all at the beginning of the season, it could be a major competitive disadvantage for the Saints.
The effect of multiple bans in September could get the Saints off to a poor start in a season that the city is hosting the Super Bowl.
Fujita, now with Cleveland, adamantly told SI earlier this month that he never funded a pool for players to try to injure another player. "Over the years, I've paid out a lot of money for big plays like interceptions, sacks and special-teams tackles inside the 20[-yard line], but I've never made a payment for intentionally injuring another player,'' he said. Fujita said he didn't think he ever put money into a collective pot; rather, when a player earned money for a football play, Fujita handed him the money he'd promised.
Fujita and former Cards and Steelers special-teams star Sean Morey pushed hard during the labor negotiations for improvements in working conditions, including fewer practices with full contact during the season. It was Fujita's emphasis on health care for former players who have debilitating illnesses, such as close friend and former Saint Steve Gleason, who suffers from ALS, that made the two sides include lifetime care for ex-players with ALS.
"You don't spend all this time with guys like Sean Morey and other former players, or have close friends whose health fails them, possibly because of this game, and not be affected by that,'' Fujita said at the time. "I wanted to be part of the paradigm shift.''
It was thought that Goodell would issue all of the Saints sanctions at the same time. The fact that he didn't now puts a shadow over the players union meeting in Florida this weekend -- and over the NFL's annual meetings in Palm Beach, which begin Sunday afternoon. You can be sure there will be a lot of players not sleeping well in the coming days, and maybe weeks, as the players await their fate from a commissioner who has a history of harsh penalties when he feels the league's integrity is being threatened.