Roger Goodell and why the bounty scandal backfired

David Yellen/Time

The Saints bounty suspensions have been officially vacated thanks to Paul Tagliabue, and nine months later, the bounty scandal finally has a conclusion that makes sense.

Never forget that Roger Goodell created the bounty scandal. We will probably reference this scandal for years in one way or another, and so let's be clear: none of this went public until an NFL press release on a Friday afternoon in March.

It ended Tuesday, when Paul Tagliabue gave us a disturbingly levelheaded ruling in the player appeals -- a ruling that loyally protects the NFL against possible defamation lawsuits from the players and pays respectful lipservice to Goodell's "findings" while dismissing every single one of his suspensions and their rationale. The insanity is finally over.

But while everyone points to the scoreboard and celebrates Goodell losing in his crusade against the Saints players, they're missing the best part. Roger Goodell didn't just lose, he lost a game he'd rigged from the beginning. With evidence he never had to share, a judiciary process he controlled, and a melodramtic PR campaign that was supposed to make this case easy.

In fairness, the Saints got caught breaking rules, then breaking them again, and not punishing them would've been just as reckless as what happened. Goodell had to do something to address it, lest a Real Sports segment or a grainy YouTube video explode onto the scene and make pro football look awful. But that's the thing: Somehow a scandal that was supposed to make the NFL look bad became an opportunity for Goodell to show the world how great his NFL is.

Instead of quietly hammering the Saints as an organization and Gregg Williams as a the bounty ringleader, Goodell went into scorched-earth grandstanding mode, emphasizing how disgusted and dismayed he was by the whole affair, then handing down historic punishments across the board. Goodell took this scandal and made it ten times bigger. What should've been Spygate Part Two became something closer to the Black Sox scandal, mostly because Goodell treated it that way.

This backfired SO HARD.

As Tagliabue explained in his ruling, "When an effort to change a culture rests heavily on prohibitions, and discipline and sanctions that are seen as selective, ad hoc or inconsistent, then people in all industries are prone to react negatively - - whether they be construction workers, police officers or football players." Goodell's attitude was so ridiculous that eventually everyone started asking more questions about the Commissioner than they did about bounties. The longer this wore on, the worse Goodell looked.

He deserves it, too. He used the Saints as a prop. With the NFL facing a thousand different lawsuits and concerns about player safety, Goodell decided to release the evidence in March, emphasizing his disgust in the initial league statement.

"The payments here are particularly troubling because they involved not just payments for 'performance,' but also for injuring opposing players. The bounty rule promotes two key elements of NFL football: player safety and competitive integrity.

"It is our responsibility to protect player safety and the integrity of our game, and this type of conduct will not be tolerated. We have made significant progress in changing the culture with respect to player safety and we are not going to relent. We have more work to do and we will do it."

If Goodell had stopped after somehow turning a press release about an organized head-hunting program into a player safety PSA, that would have been fine.

But then, suspending Sean Payton for an entire season AND publicly singling out four Saints players as villains who betrayed the integrity of the game ... that's where the "selective, inconsistent, ad hoc" punishments made the whole world do a double take.

When you look closer, the most scandalous aspect of this whole scandal was the idea that bounties are rare, or really any different than a defensive player's salary. For instance, the Giants defense planned to targeted Kyle Williams, a player with a history of concussions in the NFC Championship Game last year. Does it matter whether any of them made an extra $5,000 that day? The strategy worked. Williams fumbled twice in crucial moments, and each Giant made an extra $62,000 for making the Super Bowl--a much bigger payout that's alleged in any of the Saints evidence.

Once you start thinking hard about the morality "bounties", it's only a matter of time before you realize that football itself is a sport where breaking down the other team's best player is the goal on every play. The entire sport is a bounty system at its core, and once you get that far, the Commissioner asking you to blame the Saints players seems like the most dishonest man in football.

Look at the difference between Goodell and Tagliabue:

"I am profoundly troubled by the fact that players - including leaders among the defensive players - embraced this program so enthusiastically and participated with what appears to have been a deliberate lack of concern for the well-being of their fellow players. ... [T]hey must not let the quest for victory so cloud their judgment that they willingly and willfully target their opponents and engage in unsafe and prohibited conduct intended to injure players."

Roger Goodell, NFL statement, March 21, 2012

"The undeniable fact is that over many years a pattern and practice of abuse of the rules seems to have developed - - a culture has evolved - - that has led to acceptance of pay-for-performance reward programs. ... Most important, no matter what the League rules and policies are or have been, if many teams in the League allow pay-for-performance programs to operate in the locker room, as seems to be the case, and, in the main, the League has tolerated this behavior without punishment of players, then many players may not have a clear understanding that such behavior is prohibited or where the lines are between permissible and impermissible conduct."

Paul Tagliabue, Final Decision on players appeals, December 11, 2012

Goodell wanted to blame his players for what happened here, and in one paragraph Tagliabue perfectly explains why that is historically absurd.

There's a reason things happened the way they did, though. The Saints were framed as some grave villains because that allowed the NFL to play the hero. The bounty suspensions were always just an excuse to go on record saying that (1) The NFL has zero tolerance for rule breakers when it comes to player safety, and (2) Roger Goodell is personally disgusted by any player who would try to injure another football player.

Instead, this scandal gave football fans the loudest reminder yet that (1) even the most basic NFL rules about player safety are blurry and unenforceable in any logical or fair way, and (2) aside from PR pontificating, the NFL Commissioner doesn't actually care about the rights, reputation, or welfare of individual players.

So yes, if we remember anything about the bounty scandal, let's remember that Roger Goodell was the mastermind behind the entire disaster. And next time Roger Goodell tells Time Magazine, "I don't do things for public relations, I do things because they're the right thing to do," remember that he's not just a liar, but also a complete failure.

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