By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) The suspension of four NFL players associated with Bountygate has almost nothing to do with justice.
Commissioner Roger Goodell has very little interest in punishing linebacker Jonathan Vilma, Anthony Hargrove, Will Smith and Scott Fujita for their roles in the bounty system employed by the team under defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and head coach Sean Payton. What Goodell wants to do is rid his league of any future plans to initiate bounties that may linger in the minds of current coaches or players.
It’s one thing to suspend coaches and executives who draw up gameplans and bring in personnel. No matter how nefarious they are in doing their jobs, coaches and general managers don’t make tackles and don’t hit anybody on the field. That’s what players do. To truly get rid of the bounty system, Goodell had to let the players know that they could not hide behind the excuse of just following orders.
Vilma got hit the hardest. He will miss the 2012 season, while Hargrove will miss the first half of the season for the Cleveland Browns. Smith will miss the first four games of the season and Fujita will miss the first three games. Fujita is also with the Browns.
The NFL said that more than those four players participated in the bounty program, but that the four suspended players had “leadership” roles. Goodell also said that the suspended players were involved in “obstructing” the league’s 2010 investigation to the Saints’ bounty program.
The players involved and the NFLPA have started stomping and screaming about the suspensions and their impact on the careers, finances and the Saints’ fortunes for the 2012 season. NFLPA president DeMaurice Smith has vowed to fight the suspensions and players have threatened to take the league to court to prevent or delay them.
Goodell had to know that would happen. He also must be fairly confident that the league will be able to defend its position if court hearings are eventually held on the subject. The NFL has pages and pages of evidence that it used to justify its decisions. It doesn’t seem likely that players will be able to make a plausible argument against the evidence and negate the suspensions.
But to the average NFL player, the suspensions will hit like a cold slap in the face. Few football fans and observers believe the Saints are the only team that has used a bounty system in recent years. Perhaps they were the most brazen of those who offered pay for pain, but it seems unlikely that they were alone. Coaches and players who were thinking of initiating such a system with their teams now have to put those thoughts out of their heads.
Goodell’s reputation as being the strongest sports disciplinarian since Kenesaw Mountain Landis was charged with cleaning up Major League Baseball following the 1919 Black Sox scandal was well-established before the Bountygate scandal. Now that reputation is cemented. Players who want to take the law into their own hands and change the way the game is going to be played are not going to be able to accomplish those goals under Goodell’s watch. The suspensions of Williams, Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis went a long way towards making that happen, but the player suspensions show there is nothing soft or lenient about this commissioner. Those who want to challenge him are going to get smacked down hard.
While there are many other problems on football’s horizon, Goodell wants to get rid of those individuals who would use the game to injure others. Football can be a brutal game when it’s played the legal way. It doesn’t have to be any more ruthless than that.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.