Suspended Saints won't get NFL help

May 2, 2012

A month ago, many thought Jonathan Vilma’s suspension would amount to four games. Then again, few NFL club personnel had a really good understanding of how revolted NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was with the Saints’ bounty system, from defensive coordinator Gregg Williams instituting the multi-year practice to his star linebacker actually putting $10,000 on the table, a bonus if any of his teammates could knock then-Vikings quarterback Brett Favre out of the 2009 NFC Championship Game.

In retrospect, a few Saints sure looked like they wanted that ten grand. They put a beating on Favre that night in the Superdome, and referee Pete Morelli missed more than a few low, knee-buckling shots on the quarterback half the world seemed to hate. And to many Minnesota fans, those missed calls and others were the difference between their team advancing to the Super Bowl against Peyton Manning in Miami.

And, believe me, these suspensions, announced on Wednesday, are no consolation.

For Vilma, who heard on ESPN that he can’t play and won’t be paid this season, this suspension might end his big-money career. He missed five games last season because of bad knees and he’ll be 31 in 2013. Now, the Saints may want him back, but it’s unlikely they will pay him $3-4 million a season?

Anthony Hargrove, who was signed by the Packer-hating Favres, is suspended for eight games. Hargrove, who took two cheap shots against Favre in the championship game, also lied in his testimony to the league.

Will Smith — the Saints’ most-gifted front-seven defender — is suspended for four games and criticized for not being a better team leader.

Scott Fujita, who left the Saints after their Super Bowl season, received a three-game suspension. Fujita currently plays for the Browns and, ironically, is an influential member of the NFL Players Association executive committee.

Yes, all four of these players can appeal to Goodell.

But what a waste of time that would be!

Saints coach Sean Payton already failed in his appeal so these players have no chance of having their punishment reduced, considering Goodell is judge and jury on the appeal process, too.

This is why is makes perfect sense for all four players to go to federal court, or any court, to try to get injunctive relief against the loss of work and pay.

I must admit that this seems like an impossible situation for players like Fujita and the NFL Players Association. How can the union defend Fujita and his former teammates while also advocating for player safety? Granted, the union has never liked that Goodell (or any commissioner) has such ultimate discipline power, but they’ve agreed in collective bargaining talks to such a process. Also, by defending the Bounty players, does that mean that the NFLPA is OK with offensive players being intentionally hurt?

It’s the ultimate Catch-22 for the union and for Fujita, who is a very decent, family-orientated adult. It’s a further example that many NFL players are different between the white lines than they are in every-day life.

From Goodell’s perspective, he’s disappointed in a player like Fujita for not standing up to his coach and his teammates for this reckless behavior. But in Fujita’s defense, he is just one player and coaches like Williams and Payton decide his fate. Had Fujita spoken up or criticized the Bounty system, he may have been benched or released. Who knows what would have happened?

And we all know that people who squeal can often be black-balled. The public honors whistle-blowers, but that’s not how most coaches view such matters.

The NFLPA continues to use as its excuse that the Goodell has never presented them with hard evidence of the pay-to-injure bounty system, but does anyone really believe that Williams or any of the players actually kept a notebook or a ledger of such hits? But bounties have always been a word-of-mouth affair; something players talk about.

From the very beginning, many believe that Goodell and the league office has come down hard on the Saints and the players involved because of pending lawsuits (more than 1,200 former players are involved) regarding concussions and other head-trauma related injuries. Do these head injuries lead to dementia and to early Alzheimer’s? The league has attempted to get out in front of these issues and there are no definitive health results. But you can bet when they defend their billion-dollar enterprise in the courts, they will use these suspensions and fines as examples that they are trying to curb on-field violence.

To long-time fans of pro football, and even to Hall of Famers, the game has been forever violent. In the 1970s, Steelers coach Chuck Noll went as far as suing the Oakland Raiders for having a criminal element style of playing football. Noll didn’t win the case, but you get the understanding that pro football has been guilty at times of crossing the competitive line.

Quarterbacks have been thrown on their heads. I remember, as a youngster in Pittsburgh, looking at the famous photo of blood rolling down Y.A. Tittle’s bald head back in 1964.

The enlarged photo was in a Pittsburgh bank window. And maybe the Pittsburgh fans were proud that it was a few Steelers who did the damage to Tittle?

Pro football is rough enough, the violence at such a high speed, that cheap hits — the so-called bounty hits — should be outlawed and penalized. Still, it will be interesting to see if the legal system agrees with Goodell or cuts these four players a break. A judge may demand damning testimony and hard evidence.