As you likely know, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell came down hard on the New Orleans Saints yesterday for their malfeasance in instituting and funding a bounty system on opposing players. The jaw-dropping move was suspending Saints coach Sean Payton for an entire year, without pay.
The news is a fiesta for the water cooler, especially here in Minnesota, where there's a sense that what the Saints did to Brett Favre in the 2009 NFC Championship game was instrumental in denying the Vikings a chance at another trip to the Super Bowl. It's impossible to know, really, but as a somewhat disinterested observer it's easy to understand why Vikings fans would feel that way.
Goodell likely had ulterior motives in coming down so hard on the team. The issue of player safety has never been more prominent in my lifetime and the pending lawsuit against the NFL by former players had to be top of mind for Goodell and his fellow honchoes. The NFL is ever mindful of public relations and if they had not come down hard in this instance, the lawyers for the former players certainly would have been asking some uncomfortable questions.
That said, sometimes the savvy p.r. move is actually the right move. The people who play in the National Football League are by definition making a bit of a Faustian bargain when they participate in the game -- it's just not healthy to get hit repeatedly by world-class athletes traveling at high rates of speed. Most players understand that, but the price is nasty later in life, as people like Dave Duerson found out. Duerson, one of the best defenders on the great Chicago Bears teams of the 1980s, committed suicide last year. He had specifically asked before he died that his brain be tested, and the test results showed that he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy. That's a tough thing to face and it was more than Duerson could apparently handle.
To the extent such things are baked into the game, there's only so much the NFL can do to mitigate the damage. But what it can do is ensure that institutionalized malfeasance gets dealt with severely. The Saints fans might be complaining about it, but in the end all of us who enjoy watching a violent game should applaud Goodell for not sparing the Saints.