We knew the Saints punishment was coming, and Wednesday, Roger Goodell and the NFL suspended Sean Payton for one year, sending the same message that the NFL's been selling all along.
Sean Payton has given his life to football. He played in high school and college, and when he graduated from Eastern Illinois in 1987, he had a tryout with the Kansas City Chiefs. Payton didn't make it, and wound up playing in the inaugural season of the Arena Football League.
Then he was sold for $1,000 to the Ottawa Rough Riders of the CFL. He didn't last long in Ottawa; before too long he was playing for the "Spare Bears" as a replacement player during the 1987 NFL strike. Then he moved to Europe, where he played for the Leceister Panthers in the United Kingdom. He left the team early, though, and moved back to America to take a spot as an assistant coach at San Diego State in 1988. From there, he bounced to Indiana State, Miami of Ohio, Illinois, back to San Diego State, and finally, to the Philadelphia Eagles, where he became the quarterbacks coach in 1997.
When he was fired in Philadelphia, it was off to the New York Giants, and then the Dallas Cowboys as Bill Parcells's top assistant. Then the New Orleans Saints finally made him a head coach in 2006, and now, in 2012, after beginning a whirlwind tour of back offices and film rooms, Sean Payton will spend a year away from football for the first time in 25 years of adulthood.
Roger Goodell has given his life to football. He's the son of a Republican Senator, but when he graduated college, it was Goodell's own relentless self-promotion that landed him a job in 1982. He became an administrative intern in Pete Rozzelle's New York City commissioner's office. The next year he went to the Jets as an intern, but in 1984, he was back to the league office as an assistant in the public relations department.
Four years later, Goodell was appointed assistant of the AFC, and began working closely with the new commissioner, Paul Tagliabue. He worked on the business side for years, until 2001, when Tagliabue appointed him the league's Chief Operating Officer and Executive Vice President.
When Tagliabue retired, Roger Goodell was among five nominees to succeed him. He needed 22 votes from the 30 owners to win the job, and it took five rounds of voting before he finally emerged victorious. His lifetime of dedication was rewarded, and he was named the NFL's new commissioner in 2006. The same year Payton's lifetime of work paid off.
Goodell and Payton are opposite sides of the same coin, but with the NFL entrenched in an identity crisis that's become inescapable the past few years, the differences matter more than ever. Sean Payton's been living life through a sport; Roger Goodell's been living life through a business.
In Payton's sport, a "bounty system" isn't as sinister as it sounds or as unprecedented as you'd hope. After we found out about the bounty system the Saints had under Sean Payton and his defensive coordinator, other players chimed in to remind everyone that bounties aren't isolated to the Saints. As former NFL player Matt Bowen wrote a few weeks ago:
Bounties, cheap shots, whatever you want to call them, they are a part of this game. It is an ugly tradition that was exposed Friday with Williams front and center from his time coaching the defense in New Orleans. But don't peg this on him alone. You will find it in plenty of NFL cities.
In Goodell's business, bounties aren't acceptable. They can't be, because when we hear that a players have been getting paid extra for big hits and injuries to opposing players, it strips the business of football down to its ugly, morally ambiguous core. Like when we found out that the New York Giants were targeting a 23-year-old receiver on the 49ers because of his concussion history. Players and coaches are paid to attack, spend their lives working toward getting the chance to do it in the NFL, and once they get there, how often they succeed determines how much they'll be paid in the future. An extra five thousand dollars may make it "bounty system", but football's built on destruction regardless. If the Saints got paid and the Giants didn't, is there really a difference?
In Payton's sport, injuries are a part of the game, and who injures whom goes a long way toward deciding who wins. A Saints running back bore the brunt of a helmet-to-helmet hit in this year's playoffs. I swear you could see him go unconscious on impact, and in any case, he dropped the ball inside San Francisco's five yard-line, the 49ers recovered and eventually won the playoff game. The Saints running back didn't play another down.
In Roger Goodell's business, that was a fumble, not an injury.
The NFL's become more successful than ever during Goodell's time as commissioner. Likewise, the Saints have gone from a punchline to perennial contender with Sean Payton as coach. One of the highlights for both men was the Super Bowl run in 2010, when the Saints became the best story in sports, and football was credited with breathing new life into New Orleans.
But there's always been a tension between football's feel-good moments and the reality of the sport that creates them. The Saints bounty system lays that tension bare. As the former player said when the news broke, "When my three sons grow up, I will make clear to them that this league isn't for everyone." But Roger Goodell's business IS for everyone.
So, Goodell had no choice but to send a message in response to the Saints situation, even if that meant punishing a famous coach who wasn't directly involved. Even if it meant the stiffest punishment a coach has ever received. We knew it was coming. There will always be a gulf between football the sport and football the business, and the bigger the NFL gets, the more obvious this will become. In the meantime, Goodell will use every opportunity he has to convince us that football's not what it seems.
That's how someone who's given his life to football can be turned into a villain worthy of a year-long ban. The NFL needs Sean Payton and James Harrison and controversies like "Bountygate", because the punishments that come with them help convince fans that everyone else involved in the sport is different.
Way back in the summer, Sports Illustrated visited Payton in his Saints offices, and he told Peter King, "Football today's about one word. Let's see if you can guess it."
They watch film of the Jets defense switching alignments and hiding blitzers, and eventually Bart Scott goes crashing into Drew Brees and forcing an incompletion. "Confusion," Payton tells him. "Football has become the battle of confusion." For the two men that have given their life to football, the motivations might be different, but the goal is the same.