As a Michigan fan who followed the demise of Jim Tressel with a sense of glee (seeing one's alma mater losing seven in a row to its arch-rival will do that to a person), I was well-prepared for Friday's bombshell that the NFL has determined that the New Orleans Saints' coaches and general manager were aware of a bounty scheme run by the team's defensive coordinator. For those of you who did not follow the Tressel story with fervor borne of frustration, there are a number of parallels here:
- Reaching new levels - Jim Tressel won Ohio State its first national title in 34 years. Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis won the Saints their first NFC and Super Bowl titles in franchise history.
- Impeccable images - Tressel had the pristine image of a senator, mainly because of his sweater vests, his ability to talk for several minutes on end in press conferences without saying anything of substance, and the fact that ABC's broadcasts of Ohio State games that involved Brent Musberger should have been labeled as infomercials for the Ohio State coach. The Saints have the image of the team that saved New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, a national media narrative that is so over-the-top that it annoys the Saints fans that I know. (Their line, as I understand it, is that the Monday Night win over the Michael Vick-led Falcons in 2006 was the healing moment, and that was the end of it.) The team's quarterback has been knighted as being of impeccable integrity, leading to a Monday Night broadcast this year where it was unclear as to whether Mike Tirico, Ron Jaworski, and Jon Gruden were being paid a bounty by the Saints for the most laudatory statement about Brees.
- A link between wrongdoing and success - Ohio State's success under Jim Tressel can at least be tied loosely to the improper benefits that Buckeye players were receiving, as it would be a recruiting boon to bring high school players on campus and then have them see that the star quarterback has a rotation of cars among other improper benefits, an issue that would have brought more severe sanctions if not for a key witness refusing to cooperate with the investigation. New Orleans' greatest success under Payton and Gregg Williams can be attributed to the beatings that their defense handed out to Kurt Warner and Brett Favre in the 2009 playoffs. Can any Saints fan claim with a straight face that Favre's ankle injury was not a major factor in a game that the Saints won in overtime? (Keep in mind that the Saints were fortunate to be in the game to begin with in light of the fact that they were outgained by over 200 yards.)
- Official malfeasance - There is no doubt that college football players at most major programs get extra benefits by virtue of their status as local celebrities. What ended the Tressel era in Columbus was that the Senator received evidence of his players receiving extra benefits and despite having a mandatory reporting duty under NCAA rules, chose to sit on the evidence (other than to contact Pryor's
primary supplier of improper benefitsbenefactor in Pennsylvania shortly after getting the key e-mail). Likewise, there is no doubt that NFL defensive players have been known on occasion to reward one another for big hits. However, this scandal is unique in that: (1) a defensive coordinator apparently participated in the bounty scheme; and (2) the team's head coach and general manager both knew about it, were told by the team's owner to stop it, and did nothing to end the scheme. (The one person in the Saints' organization who comes out of this story looking like a decent human being is Tom Benson.) SI.com's Don Banks takes Mickey Loomis behind the woodshed for covering the bounty program up:
Loomis, according to the NFL's internal investigation and report, went all Haldeman and Erhlichman on us and decided to cover up the existence of the team's bounty program, first denying any knowledge of it to the league when the NFL looked into the allegations in 2010, and then promising to dismantle and discontinue such a program if he found such evidence. The league's report contains four very damning sentences regarding Loomis' response to the Saints' bounty fund:
"When informed earlier this year of the new information, Mr. Benson advised league staff that he had directed his general manager, Mickey Loomis, to ensure that any bounty program be discontinued immediately. The evidence shows that Mr. Loomis did not carry out Mr. Benson's direction.
"Similarly, when the initial allegations where discussed with Mr. Loomis in 2010, he denied any knowledge of a bounty program and pledged that he would ensure that no such program was in place. There is no evidence that Mr. Loomis took any effective action to stop these practices.''
In other words, Loomis looked the other way, and hoped the story would go away. He decided it was better to protect his team's coaches and players than to do his job and act in the best interests of the franchise and Benson. Maybe that won't wind up being judged to rise to the level of a firable offense in the Saints organziation, but to orchestrate the cover-up of a potentially embarrassing organizational misdeed will get your butt canned plenty in the corporate world.
It is not just in the corporate world that hiding evidence of a significant violation of applicable rules will "get your butt canned." As the Tressel story illustrates, in college football, a coach or athletic director who has knowledge of NCAA violations will be fired. The reasoning for this is that the NCAA does not embed investigators in the athletic programs of its member institutions. There is a presumption that if rules are broken, the authority figures in those programs will report those infractions. Otherwise, the entire system does not work. In fact, Ohio State had to offer Tressel up on the altar as a part of its attempt to minimize penalties from the NCAA. One element of its defense was an argument to the effect of the following: "as evidence of how seriously we take compliance with NCAA rules, we fired one of the most successful coaches in program history." The Saints might end up making a similar calculation, only they may need to offload both their head coach and their general manager.
The last parallel between the Ohio State and New Orleans scandals is that both relate to the most pressing issues facing their respective sports. College football has been plagued in recent months with significant scandals involving major programs and improper benefits, leading many to question the continued viability of a sport that is built on a fiction.
For instance, the 2010 national title game was contested between a team whose star quarterback's father was trying to sell his son to the highest bidder and an opponent currently under investigation for paying a runner in Texas to direct players to Eugene. The biggest issue facing the NFL is the long-term health impact of the sport, a dilemma that leads to a plausible scenario in which the NFL no longer exists. Through a combination of: (1) the school firing its head coach and suspending several of its best players; and (2) the NCAA tacking on a one-year bowl ban, Ohio State has essentially had to give up two football seasons. That's the message that the NCAA and its members have to send to deter money finding its way to the players who generate it.
I don't pretend to know what is in Roger Goodell's holster in terms of potential punishments, but it is clear that he is going to have to bring the hammer down because the participation of Saints' coaches in the team's bounty system and the acquiescence of the head coach and general manager in that system touches on the biggest problem facing the league. Goodell has to ensure that current and future authority figures in the league see what happened to the Saints and take the lesson that they have to stamp out incentives to injure opposing players.