The NFL Bounty Investigation

Let me make this short and sweet. There a reason this bounty "scandal" has broken out in the NFL. And it's not truly about punishing the guilty or stopping the practice because of its inherited "evil."

Bounties, for lack of a better term, have been around forever in the NFL (and they exist in the NHL as well. Ever hear of a player being put "on the board?" Look it up.). Many retired players have come out of the woodwork to talk about this made-up issue. Few have denied hearing such vile things, but others confidently confirm its existence.


Washington Redskins QB Joe Theismann, best known today for having his leg snapped like a twig by New York Giants drug-fueled LB Lawrence Taylor on Monday Night Football, recently was quoted in a Sports Illustrated article saying, "In a sick way, I guess it's flattering. If you had a bounty on you, you were a pretty good player and they wanted to get rid of you."

Let's face it, NFL players are already paid to hit each other. The fact that an added "bounty" of $1,000 or $1,500 (as has been reported in this scandal) shouldn't really make a difference to these players. But it does make me wonder, if one can motivate a $1 million NFL player by offering him $1,000 to injure another player, what could you get the same player to do for $10,000 or $100,000? Fix a game, perhaps?

In the case of the New Orleans Saints, many have pointed a finger at the 2009 NFC Championship Game between the Saints and the Minnesota Vikings. Saints LB Jonathan Vilma allegedly placed a $10,000 bounty on Vikings QB Brett Favre. In the game, Favre was repeated hit by the Saints defense - but then again, that is their job. Favre, to his credit, echoed Theismann's sentiments, "I'm not pissed. It's football. I don't think anything less of those guys. I'm not going to make a big deal about it. In all honesty, there's a bounty of some kind on you on every play."

What fans should be concerned about regarding this game wasn't Vilma's alleged bounty. They should be concerned that the referees in that NFC Championship Game failed to call numerous penalties against the Saints' defense for illegal hits on Favre. Perhaps had the NFL's officials properly enforced the rules that day, the outcome may have gone against the league's pet project in the Saints. Recall how much hype surrounded that team post-Katrina (they were featured two years running in a Visa commercial), and how the league celebrated mightily when they won the Super Bowl (thanks to New Orleans native Peyton Manning's ill-advised interception).

Then, just a few days after the scandal broke, the NFL Network pulled a re-airing of that NFC Championship game. Why? I think you can guess.

The biggest question in need of answer in all of this, however, is how did this story break? Investigative reporting? Nope. Whistleblowing player calling out a former coach? Nope. Just how did this become front page news?

THE NFL BROKE THIS STORY ITSELF.

NFL Security - for perhaps the first time in decades as they don't appear to do much else - actually investigated its own players/coaches/teams and revealed the "ugly" truth behind the bounty program in place in New Orleans. This is significant because the NFL WANTED this story to come out. It could have easily received a report from its security division and filed it away, never to see the light of day.

But the NFL wanted this practice outed. Why? Because of all the legal threats the league faces over concussions and post-concussion syndrome affecting its retired athletes. The NFL has to appear to be concerned about player safety. It has to try to make NFL football "safe."

This is what the bounty scandal is ultimately all about. Like drug testing, this is just another P.R. campaign meant to appear to be doing one thing while in fact doing the opposite. The NFL has known and allowed bounties to exist for decades. To clamp down on it now is merely to protect the league and the billions it makes from further litigation.

Do not think otherwise.

UPDATE: Jonathan Vilma is fighting the NFL on his year-long suspension, and perhaps for good reason. The NFL has yet to make public any proof of Vilma's or any other player's guilt in this bounty program. For more on this lack of proof, read my Examiner article here.

UPDATE #2: Suspended defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove's agent wrote in a statement, "If these men have committed such grievous crimes that you have determined that their careers should be in danger and ... their names sullied, why be so secretive about the `evidence' that you use to condemn them? Do you actually have any concrete evidence that any player from another team was injured as a result of a "bounty'' and that a player from the Saints was therefore paid accordingly? ... Is it possible that the overwhelming majority of this pressing dilemma is about semantics?"

The major problem for the condemned players is that they signed away most of their rights in the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) with the NFL (remember the lockout that nearly delayed the start of the 2011 season? That was over this CBA). The new CBA gives Commissioner Goodell the power to basically do as he pleases in this case...including hearing the appeal of the four players he suspended.

In that appeals hearing, the NFL did finally come forth with some proof the the Saints bounty program, but only allowed 12 "respected" writers/reporters to see this evidence which included some 200 pages of documents.

One of the prized pieces presented according to Sports Illustrated was a PowerPoint slide the league obtained from the Saints. This dated from January 2011, just prior to their wildcard playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks (a much-debated game in which the 7-9 Seahawks won their division and received a home game over the defending Super Bowl champion Saints who possessed a better regular season record). This slide showed photos of three Seahawks with "Now it's time to do our job. Collect bounty $$$! No apologies.Let's go hunting'' printed on it. The PowerPoint presentation obtained from the Saints also featured a picture of "Dog the Bounty Hunter" to drive home the point.

The Saints lost this game 41-36, and not a single "bounty-worthy" hit took place.

Perhaps the most interesting development to come from this was mentioned by SI's Peter King who wrote, "The unending stream of evidence from Saints computers, which is going to create some very strange bedfellows inside the Saints' football facility ... seeing that the two-year sweep of all Saints' e-mails and computer-generated PowerPoints was OK'd by owner Tom Benson, who helped seal the case against the four suspended players and three coaches and general manager Mickey Loomis by allowing forensics experts to search for incriminating electronic evidence against his employees."

So once again it must be asked: Is the bounty program really the reason for this investigation? Or is an NFL owner--a very recent Super Bowl winning owner who was given multiple concessions for his team in the lead-up to that victory--willing to make a sacrifice for the league's sake to prevent further monetary losses due to lawsuits regarding "player safety?"

UPDATE #3 - This wasn't surprising, but on July 3 Commissioner Goodell upheld his own original ruling on the players' suspensions relating from this scandal. The players will likely now attempt to take the NFL to court over this; however, their CBA does not necessarily allow such an action. Stay tuned.

UPDATE #3.5 - One of the pieces of evidence against Anthony Hargrove, a statement caught on video saying, "Give me my money" after Brett Favre was injured in the Saints-Vikings NFC Championship Game, has been proven not to be Hargrove. Who it was is not know, but for Commissioner Goodell, it doesn't matter. He was quoted by SI.com as writing, "For purposes of addressing Mr. Hargrove’s appeal, I need not resolve the issue of who made the statement. Instead, I am prepared to assume -— as he apparently stated publicly -— that he did not make it. But that statement is relevant because, regardless of which player said it, it corroborates other evidence that there was an incentive in place for knocking Mr. Favre out of the game and that the members of the Saints defense, including Mr. Hargrove, were well aware of that fact."

The players really need to re-think that 10-year CBA they signed with the league because more of this sort of nonsensical ruling will continue to come down from the Commissioner until something puts an end to it.