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Column: Spare the players in NFL bounty scheme

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FILE - In this July 26, 2012, file photo, New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma arrives to testify at Federal Court  in New Orleans. The suspensions of Vilma and three other players in the NFL's bounty investigation were lifted Friday, Sept. 7, 201

FILE - In this July 26, 2012, file photo, New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma arrives to testify at Federal Court in New Orleans. The suspensions of Vilma and three other players in the NFL’s bounty investigation were lifted Friday, Sept. 7, 2012, by a three-member appeals panel and the league reinstated those players a few minutes later.

Gerald Herbert, File, Associated Press

Jonathan Vilma probably declared victory a bit too quickly, though you have to like how he went about it. Quoting a character out of the cartoon "Family Guy" seemed appropriate, if only because there is something a bit cartoonish about the whole NFL bounty scandal.

Roger Goodell was supposed to be the superhero in this adventure, swooping in with suspensions and fines to save the NFL from itself. He made players and coaches alike pay for the suggestion that, gulp, the NFL is a league that glorifies violence.

It is, of course, and nothing is going to change that. Not the commissioner's punishments, and certainly not the letter he sent to fans last week declaring that the league will "aggressively protect the health, safety and long-term livelihood of our players, both on the field and off."

If you're one of the millions tuning in Sunday for the first full day of NFL games, don't fret. There will be enough hard hits to keep your attention, enough players helped off the field to give you time to grab another cold one from the fridge.

The NFL is, as Mike Tyson used to say about boxing, a hurt business. The object is to dominate the player up against you whatever way you can, a lesson drilled into players since they first put on helmets in Pop Warner leagues.

For Goodell to try and suggest otherwise is a convenient way to obfuscate the real truth, necessitated perhaps by the fact the league is mired in court defending its violent culture against more than 3,000 former players. His image as a leader concerned about player safety plays well against lawsuits that claim players were left with damaged brains because the NFL ignored evidence that repeated concussions were dangerous.

That's not to say Goodell was wrong in handing down punishment to the New Orleans Saints for a scheme to pay bounties to players based on plays that knocked players out of games. If true — and the NFL insists it has more than enough evidence to prove it is true — he had little choice but to send a message that intentionally inflicting injuries on opposing players can't be tolerated.

The problem is, he ended up punishing some of the wrong people.

Blame renegade former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams — he of the infamous "kill the head" statement — and make sure he never returns to the league. Leave intact the suspensions of coach Sean Payton, assistant Joe Vitt and general manager Mickey Loomis for allowing the scheme to continue.

But leave the players out of it. Most of what they were doing was what any player would do when their job is on the line every time they take the field.

Yes, some of them may have contributed to the bounty pot, and some of them may have collected from it. But mostly they were delivering big hits because — like all players — if they don't deliver big hits the team stops delivering them a big paycheck.

And really, is there any difference between rewarding a defensive player with a fat new contract for having the most sacks on the team than giving him, say, a $10,000 bonus for putting the hurt on a hot quarterback in the playoffs?

It's worth noting, too, that despite the evidence the NFL trotted out to support the suspensions, seven current or former Saints, along with Vitt, have testified under oath in player lawsuits that there was no pay-to-injure program. They described it as a pay-for-performance pool that provided cash bonuses for big plays that included forced fumbles and interceptions as well as quarterback sacks.

The federal judge in that case also said that Goodell's contention that he has authority over the situation because players were being punished for actions that occurred in meeting rooms and locker rooms and not on the field "borders on ridiculous," citing it as one of several examples of "slicing the salami very thin."

The decision Friday that prompted Vilma to channel cartoon character Stewie Griffin in declaring "Victory is mine!!!!" wasn't the final say on the matter. A three-member appeals panel simply decided Goodell overstepped his authority in hearing the players' appeals of their punishments and did not address the merits of the NFL's bounty investigation.

Though the NFL declared Vilma and three other suspended players eligible to play following the ruling, Goodell also promised that he would "make an expedited determination of the discipline imposed" for violating the league's bounty rule.

Goodell owes it to the players to hurry. Their careers have a limited lifespan to begin with, and any time missed is time they can't get back on the field.

They've already paid a heavy price by being labeled as villains in the bounty scheme. It may well cost them jobs in the future or money in new contracts.

They've been punished enough.


Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg