Trust Goodell without proof? No can do

May 2, 2012

The narrative is so nice and neat: Roger Goodell, good. Standing up for player health and safety.

Jonathan Vilma and the other three players suspended by Goodell on Wednesday: monstrous for leading a ring that paid bonuses to Saints teammates for hurting other players at a time like this, when concussions are the big issue in sports.

The NFLPA: Bad. Standing up for villains over right and wrong. Everyone hates unions.

Plenty of truth surely is mixed into this neatness, but that narrative needs to be blown up. This is actually one big mess. And to trust Goodell and to blame Vilma, the players and the NFLPA is to fall into the dangerous thumbs up, thumbs down thinking that distorts truth and keeps getting us into trouble.

The NFLPA is in a tough spot here, batting conflicting interests. How does it defend player-members who were part of a scheme with coaches to injure other player-members? If the NFLPA really cares about player safety, then it’s not going to be easy to stand up for Vilma and the others, against whom Goodell has built up a big case.

Goodell does have a big case, right? Because we haven’t really seen that. And I expected more. We are trusting Goodell because he is the institution, and we trust institutions more than we trust people.

When the issue is player-on-player crime, what is a players union supposed to do? It is supposed to protect the players, that’s what. And at this point, the issue for the NFLPA isn’t about which players to defend. It is defending all of them. It is doing exactly the right thing in standing up for the suspended players, even if it makes the union look bad because of the nice, neat narrative.

“After seeing the NFL’s decision letters, the NFLPA has still not received any detailed or specific evidence from the league of these specific players’ involvement in an alleged pay-to-injure program,’’ DeMaurice Smith, NFL Players Association Executive Director, said in a statement. “We have made it clear that punishment without evidence is not fair.

“We have spoken with our players and their representatives and we will vigorously protect and pursue all options on their behalf.’’

Was that typical union activism, throwing out right and wrong to stand up for self-preservation? It comes out that way when we think in a box. But the truth is, Smith is just saying this:

Hey, Roger Goodell: If you’ve got evidence against Vilma and the others, we’d like to see it.

I’d like to see it, too. So should every player in the NFL. So should you. Did Vilma actually pay players? Did money change hands? Who got it?

Somehow, we have been duped into believing in the righteousness of Roger Goodell. Why?

All day Wednesday, NFL players were on Twitter complaining about Goodell’s punishments. Some were agreeing with Goodell.

Vilma was suspended for the 2012 season without pay. Defensive end Will Smith must sit out four games. Former Saints defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, now with Green Bay, is out for half the season. Linebacker Scott Fujita, now with Cleveland, is out three games.

Some players tweeted that Vilma is being punished for playing football. Some said that if a coach put in a bounty system, as was the case in New Orleans, then any player standing up against it never will get another job in the NFL.

And all day, I was thinking the players were idiots for not understanding that the commissioner is trying to protect them. The premise is safety and making sure players don’t drop dead.

Look, the bounty system is sickening. Former players are losing their minds, and even little kids are taking too many shots to the head. Their future is scary enough without intent to hurt.

But Vilma got a year’s suspension, and what is the evidence against him? Vilma issued a statement saying he would like to know the same thing.

“Commissioner Roger Goodell has refused to share any of the supposed evidence he claims supports this unprecedented punishment,’’ Vilma said. “The reason is clear: I never paid, or intended to pay, $10,000, or any amount of money, to any player for knocking Kurt Warner, Brett Favre or any other player out of the 2009 divisional playoff game, 2010 NFC Championship game or any other game.

“I never set out to intentionally hurt any player and never enticed any teammate to intentionally hurt another player. I also never put any money into a bounty pool or helped to create a bounty pool intended to pay out money for injuring other players. I have always conducted myself in a professional and proud manner.’’

Vilma said he would “fight this injustice.’’ He might want to start by appealing Goodell’s decision, which will be heard by, um, Goodell, or, as one former NFL player wrote me, the same "egomaniac delivering punishment.’’

That said, the NFLPA was the one that stupidly gave Goodell all the power in these matters. Vilma is going to have to take this to the courts. If he’s guilty, then throw the book at him.

But Goodell’s actions say he wants us to just trust him. I’m not trusting anyone. We do that all the time, trusting Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky as leaders doing what’s right for young men. We trusted that Tiger Woods was a good family man, that Roger Clemens was defying age.

Goodell appears to be on an initiative to protect players, as more information comes in about long-term issues from concussions. More than a thousand players are in on lawsuits against the NFL now, regarding what the NFL knew over the years about dangers to the brain. Maybe Goodell is trying to protect players, but he also is trying to protect his league.

And he started penalizing head shots, but only among players seen doing it on TV. The offensive and defensive linemen continue to butt heads for three hours every week, on every play.

Are you positive his actions aren’t for PR? For business?

This isn’t a court of law, but if Vilma is guilty, let’s see why. The NFLPA is keeping management in check and protecting its members, demanding transparency.

That’s what it’s supposed to do. Even if players league-wide were hurt by New Orleans’ bounty system, they should back their union on this and demand that Goodell produce evidence. It might be their turn next.