There is such a thing as good, tough football. And then there is felonious assault. The NFL, fearing multimillion-dollar lawsuits, has long been waging an unjust war against the former. Now, in dropping daisy-cutters on the New Orleans Saints for their money-to-maim scheme, the NFL has launched a just war against the latter.
The facts of this story are now well known and the perpetrators are not denying guilt.
What happened is that Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, over the course of years, ran a program in which players were given financial bonuses for hurting opposing players. This program, which existed with the full knowledge of head coach Sean Payton, doled out $1,500 for knocking an opponent unconscious and $1000 for causing an opponent to be carted off the field.
Moreover, Saints defensive captain Jonathan Vilma offered a $10,000 purse to anybody who knocked then-Vikings quarterback Bret Favre out of the 2010 NFC Championship game.
As punishment for this institutionalized criminality, Payton is gone from the league for one season, Williams is suspended indefinitely, Saints general manager Mickey Loomis is suspended for the first eight games of the 2012 season, and assistant head coach Joe Vitt is suspended for the first six games.
The Saints will lose two second-round draft picks into the bargain.
Additionally, the guilty quartet will be required to participate in crafting programs that will encourage sportsmanship, respect for the game of football, and that will inveigh against bounties.
With the exception of the latter, which is tantamount to placing the reverend Jeremiah Wright in charge of cultivating American patriotism, these punishments are condign. The punishments are severe, but so are the crimes.
Now football is a sport rooted in violence, and at some level we all know that players aim to damage their opponents. Colts linebacker Gino Marchetti allegedly taped a piece of angle iron inside of his forearm pad with the intention of using it to incapacitate the enemy.
Michigan State and eventual NFL safety Jess Phillips wrapped his forearm with so much tape that it formed a club. Phillips termed his rude truncheon "the Devil."
And there have been countless other NFL players, from Jack Tatum to Conrad Dobler to Ndamukong Suh, who earned reputations for their willingness to physically harm opponents with cheap shots.
To some extent, we as fans and observers encourage this behavior. We cheer more lustily for vicious hits than we do for touchdowns. We venerate the most savage hitters. And we like it when our teams and players intimidate the opposition (Red Raiders need look no further than the adulation heaped upon former Tech knockout artist Dwayne Slay for confirmation of this fact).
But there is a qualitative difference between the unspoken reality that players try to destroy one another on the one hand, and people in position of authority paying their players to break rules and bones on the other.
When coaches, who are held to much higher moral standards than players, contract hit men to take out the opposition, they make a mockery of the rules that govern the sport.
Sean Payton, Gregg Williams, Mickey Loomis and Joe Vitt are the NFL equivalent of dirty cops. Rather than uphold the moral and nomothetic integrity of the NFL and professional football, they worked to subvert it.
That sort of behavior, left unchecked, has the potential to not only ruin the NFL's reputation, but to render the game an anarchical free-for-all in which serious injury is not only possible but likely. Roger Goodell and the NFL brass not only had to nip this offshoot in the bud, they had to lop off the entire poisonous branch. For the good of the game, they did just that.