In June 2007, during a well-intentioned "concussion summit" in suburban Chicago, the NFL implemented a so-called "whistleblower" program to encourage its players to anonymously report what was perceived as any less-than-adequate treatment of head injuries by team physicians, trainers or even coaches.
Five years later, in the wake of Wednesday's somewhat Draconian sanctions levied by commissioner Roger Goodell against the New Orleans Sinners for the heinous "Bountygate" scandal, the whistleblower initiative sustained a forearm shiver, a sack nearly as bone-rattling as a Gregg Williams-ordered blitz.
One, in practical terms, from which the league could have a difficult time recovering.
Bountygate wasn't about concussions, at least directly. But the reaction of players past and present to the men who revealed to NFL officials the existence of Williams' surreptitious pay-for-pain program – with those players labeled with derogatory terms like rat, snitch, turncoat and traitor – will give considerable pause to anyone similarly willing to come forward in the future. Will it be worth it, even for players of conscience, to risk the scorn of their peers and shed light on any such indiscretions that they might uncover or witness?
"Maybe not," one player, now retired after a career of double-digit seasons in the league, told The Sports Xchange. "I don't care how long you've been out of (the NFL). ... you still feel like part of a special fraternity. To see the kind of (stuff) heaped on the 'whistleblowers'. ... even if they're still anonymous, they have to feel like they've been drummed out of the club, you know? Like they broke the secret code."
Indeed, the prevalence of reverse whistleblowing the past few days, of essentially attempting to out the outters, could scuttle the initiative.
Implicit in the 2007 outreach to players was the contention that the identity of any whistleblower would remain anonymous. To the league's credit, that has technically been the case in the Bountygate investigation and reports generated by NFL security officials, and probably in instances involving concussion reports, and likely those of other excesses. But that hasn't halted the speculation about who it was that yanked back the curtain on Williams and Sean Payton and revealed the tawdry practices of the New Orleans defense. It didn't, for instance, stop retired Tampa Bay defensive tackle and runaway-with-rhetoric analyst Warren Sapp from publicly fingering tight end Jeremy Shockey as the guy with whom the Bountygate report originated.
Shockey has adamantly denied the allegations and wants the league to take action that will exonerate him.
Last time we checked, Sapp drew a paycheck from the league-subsidized cable TV entity. We're obviously in favor of First Amendment protection, but the NFL should at least reprimand the loose-lipped Sapp, perhaps even suspend him. That the league wasn't swift or definitive with any action – it shouldn't take NFL officials nearly as long, after all, to review The NFL Network videotapes as it did to wade through 50,000 Bountygate documents – suggests tacit approval of Sapp's on-air witch hunt.
Safety Darren Sharper, himself a onetime Saints standout, used the league's website, NFL.com, to suggest he knows the identity of the player who reported on the bounty payments, and chided him. Sharper has been a guest analyst as well on The NFL Network. Among the players who took to Twitter to decry the "snitch" were Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark and Atlanta wide receiver Roddy White. Punter Chris Kluwe resorted to fairly graphic language on his Twitter account, on the other hand, to lambast any critics of the Saints' confessor.
Yet the overwhelming sentiment, at least publicly stated, has been to attack the messenger. To suggest he should have maintained silence. And to posit the position that anyone who witnesses anything untoward in the locker room or on the field should simply ignore it, get in lockstep with the unspoken code, to embrace omerta.
Hard as it is for many players to accept, and for even some reporters to become accustomed, the NFL is in the midst of a culture change. Goodell, who demonstrated in the Michael Vick rulings and the New Orleans sanctions that he does not accept being lied to very well, has championed player safety as his legacy. Even before most of the lawsuits began piling up, Goodell had nudged consciousness about concussions front and center. It would be naive to think that making money for his wealthy constituents isn't Goodell's raison d'etre, as it has been for his predecessors, but the integrity of the game (or, "protecting the shield," as the NFL's most overused and hackneyed league-speak now suggests) ranks as a pretty high priority.
In the perfect, bias-free world envisioned by Goodell and his lieutenants, The Whistle Monster at the Superdome (real name: LeRoy Mitchell Jr.) – the guy who incessantly warbles into a musical instrument for the entire game – wouldn't be The Big Easy's only accepted whistleblower. But the fans of the feel-good team aren't feeling too good these days, because they think Goodell has come down harshly on the homeboys. Whoever the whistleblower was in the New Orleans locker room, he is reviled, not celebrated.
And the fact he is regarded as ostracized by so many players, even anonymously, indicates that, Goodell's efforts aside, the vow of silence in the NFL is one that still holds strong. Forget the laughable hypocrisy of players such as former New Orleans linebacker Scott Fujita, who lobbied so hard for safety and protection improvements in the new CBA last summer, all the while cognizant of the fact that he was a willing participant in a program that rewarded players for hard hits and injuries. That's a story for another day.
The story for this week is Bountygate and the reaction to it. And much of that reaction augers that the league could be whistling Dixie if it feels that its nascent whistleblower program hasn't been dented by the negative sentiments directed at those who 'fessed up to the New Orleans excesses.
They used to stick their heads in shopping bags in New Orleans, shamed at how pitiful was the team there. The shame of Bountygate figures to bring out the paper bags once again. The real, more bothersome and enduring shame, though, is that the criticism of the so-called whistleblower(s) could prompt them to put their heads in the sand.
Bountygate backlash could blow if for tipster
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