Given the alleged financial involvement of Jonathan Vilma in the New Orleans' bounty scandal, it wasn't altogether shocking that the respected middle linebacker was suspended for the entire 2012 season by commissioner Roger Goodell.
What might be more surprising in hindsight is that Vilma -- one of the brightest, most articulate, grounded, well educated and socially conscious players in the entire league -- allowed himself to be drawn in to Gregg Williams' pay-for-punishment design. By all accounts, no one twisted Vilma's arm to participate in a program that rewarded players for twisting opponents' arms, facemasks and worse. Yet a guy hardly given to excess got sucked in by the climate of hubris that enveloped him.
If anything, the suspensions of Vilma, defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove (eight games), defensive end Will Smith (four games) and linebacker Scott Fujita (three games) should serve as a cautionary tale. Terrible consequences can ensue when good people do questionable things. Make no mistake: All four of the players, each of whom we've met on multiple occasions, are good people. But transgressions for which they are accused, at best, were dubious.
Hard to believe that none of the four knew better. Fact is, each probably did, but were unable to buck the curious collective mindset.
It's also an example of how powerfully addictive the NFL can be, of how a mentality too long fostered in the league by some, can be propagated. There is tremendous pressure to conform, some of it injurious, and it can be prevalent. Whether Vilma became just an unwitting victim to such peer pressure, or perhaps instigated it, really isn't all that important. He was drawn in, bought in, and allegedly threw in (to the tune of $10,000), and that's an indictment of the overriding macho psyche that sometimes thrives.
Meet Vilma one time and one will come away disposed of the notion -- obsolete but still harbored in many quarters -- that NFL players are Neanderthal throwbacks. Vilma is a smart guy who comes from a family, raised by Haitian immigrant parents, of overachievers.
He has interned in the business world to prepare himself for a football afterlife that, because of the suspension and the inherent difficulties of returning to the field after such a prolonged layoff at nearly 31 years of age, could begin sooner than planned. For years, Vilma has hosted a conference for other league players to advise them on fiscal responsibilities. After the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, he established a foundation to aid survivors in his homeland.
Before the bounty scandal, it's probably fair to surmise that even Goodell himself would have embraced Vilma -- rest assured, team officials, who signed Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne as free agents, were forewarned of his likely suspension -- as a shining example of a player to emulate. And now, unfortunately, all that good will has come undone by Vilma so openly embracing a mindset that he had to know was terribly wrong.
And he's hardly the only one.
Hargrove's story of redemption -- suspended for the entire 2008 season because he was hooked on drugs at the time, out of the game, then a comeback on and off the field that included a Super Bowl win and victories in life that are more important -- is an inspiring one. Fujita is a bright guy, albeit one who should be embarrassed, given his public and outspoken role in the leadership of the NFLPA, to have been party to a program designed to have injured fellow card-carrying and dues-paying members. Smith is generally candid, open and responsive.
Prompted by the firebrand but misguided NFLPA, all four players will appeal, but to no avail. The union, as others have noted, is in a tough spot. Having now been a union member for almost as many years as DeMaurice Smith has been alive, I fully understand that the NFLPA by its nature must defend the rank-and-file. But with the emphasis on such rank actions, filing an appeal will produce little beyond extending a story even the players involved probably would prefer to have evaporate.
One can only guess that the good sense each player exhibited at different times in their careers was superseded by the environment created around them, that they were swept up in Williams' fiery rhetoric, or became mesmerized by the entitlement mentality New Orleans officials not only permitted to exist, but perpetuated as well.
For the past few years, some in the New Orleans organization, perhaps emboldened by the team's feel-good Super Bowl XLIV victory, either relaxed the rules or simply felt they didn't apply. In the wake of the Super Bowl win, convention and conformity took some time off.
And now Vilma and his co-conspirators -- otherwise good men caught up in a bad situation -- will be forced to do the same.