There are few institutions more like the U.S. Army than the National Football League.
Uniforms and helmets and training camps. Stick with your squads. If you're on time, you're late. Be 15 minutes early. Pull up your socks or you'll pay. Next month's optional workouts are mandatory. Take ground. Never retreat. You're injured? Next man up. This is war.
Above all, in both, you do what your leaders say, no questions asked. They bark, you bolt. If you think, you hurt the team.
So what did NFL commissioner Roger Goodell think New Orleans Saints football players would do when their leaders put in a bounty program for quarterbacks' heads?
Did he expect them to stand up in the middle of the fire and brimstone the night before a huge game and say, "Uh, Coach? I'm not entirely sure that's ethical. Maybe we need to check with Roger?"
Did he expect the Saints players to raise their hands and say, "You know what, Coach? I'm out. But good luck with that!"
Did Goodell expect players to risk insurrection, to risk the esprit d' corps, to risk their jobs by conscientiously objecting?
Apparently, he did. Because he just threw one of the Saints players out of his league for a year. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma was suspended the entire season without pay. That's more than $2 million, flushed. That's more than four times the $500,000 Goodell fined the Saints' multimillionaire owner, Tom Benson. So remind me: Whose head had a bounty on it in this thing?
Then Goodell gave former Saints defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove (now with Green Bay) eight games, defensive end Will Smith four, and linebacker Scott Fujita (now with Cleveland) three.
And here was the most hilarious part. The NFL hired a former U.S. attorney named Mary Jo White to "review" the evidence, and you'll never believe what she concluded. She said the NFL was right. "[The players] always had the option to say no," she wrote. "They didn't say no." And who knows the intense peer and coach pressure of an NFL locker room better than Mary Jo White?
On May 7, Vilma and his former teammates announced they would appeal their suspensions.
So who does somebody like Vilma go to when he thinks the sentence handed down by Goodell is unfair? Who does he see to get his hands on the evidence that Goodell will show Mary Jo White but not him?
Goodell, of course.
Goodell: Jonathan, we have evidence.
Vilma: What? What evidence?
Goodell: You don't get to see it. You're suspended one year.
Vilma: What? I appeal!
Goodell: No problem.
(Goodell flips "Commissioner" sign around on his desk to the other side. It reads, "Appeals Court.")
Goodell: Court's in session. What's your beef?
This is the worst railroad job since Amtrak. These guys had zero chance to stop this bounty program. In the NFL, you stand up to your coach on something like this, and you're immediately a "locker room lawyer" and suddenly you're Super-Glued to the bench. There are no guaranteed contracts in the NFL. You have two choices: You do what your coaches say or you do what your coaches say.
And don't forget, there's no video of any Saints player making illegal hits on Brett Favre or Kurt Warner in the two bounty games in question. To be ordered to carry out a hit and then doing it are two separate things.
Yes, according to the NFL, Vilma offered $10,000 to his teammates for the head of Warner in their 2009 playoff game with the Arizona Cardinals. But there are also reports that the money was given to him in the first place by his defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams. ESPN's Ed Werder reported that Vilma gave it back to him after that game, saying he didn't want to be in charge of it anymore.
Why didn't Vilma go see Goodell when he was offered the chance, weeks before the sentence came down? I'll bet you a Ferrari to a flapjack it was because his team told him not to. "You'll just get us in deeper," is what they probably said to him.
Why do I think that? Because in one of the few documents that have filtered out from the NFL, Goodell says Hargrove confessed to lying about participating in the bounty scheme but admits "you were instructed to [lie] by the coaching staff." Exactly. You do what your staff sergeant orders you to do, or you're playing in Winnipeg.
What's happening here is that Goodell is staring down the barrel of more than 1,000 lawsuits from former players with concussions. He has to prove the NFL front office is dead-set against violence, while, in NFL locker rooms, the coaches are dead-set in favor of it.
Now that Vilma is out one-ninth of his career for following orders, he's finally standing up. "I intend to fight this injustice," he says. But it's too late.
During the lockout, the NFLPA signed up for nine more years of a dictatorship, nine more years of a one-man judicial system. They agreed to it in exchange for not having to play an 18-game season, hoping to lessen the number of holes in their brains from collisions that equal a car hitting a brick wall at 45 miles per hour. But that doesn't mean the NFL shouldn't have an independent panel. To most Americans, the way the NFL is set up now looks positively Cuban.
I'm not saying the players didn't take part. They did. It was wrong and dangerous and they deserved punishment. And I admire Goodell for the steps he's taken to stop players from stupefying themselves with helmet-to-helmet collisions. But to slap these players as harshly as their bosses is like giving Bernie Madoff's secretary the same sentence as Madoff.
The players are led by, and at the mercy of, the absolute and unchecked power of Goodell.
This time, he led them into a trap.