In the end, Jonathan Vilma is a prop. He's a tool being manipulated by a commissioner trying to make much larger points.
Which, when you think about it, is not so far removed from the role that Vilma and his teammates play in the NFL in general. These are pieces on a chess board, only now they're being moved around for other purposes.
Commissioner Roger Goodell's one-season suspension of Vilma was so over the top that it had to be for effect, and indeed it was. Sending Vilma off the field for the same amount of time as Sean Payton, who as head coach of the Saints can be held directly responsible for the bounty scandal, is ludicrous -- but Goodell isn't interested in the appearance of fairness here. He is sending a message via jackhammer.
The severity of Vilma's punishment, in fact, leaves me with the strong impression that Goodell knows full well bounty systems exist in locker rooms around the NFL, however loosely structured and clumsily implemented they may be. They aren't Saints-level in their precision and payout; they may never have involved coaches. But they exist. And Goodell wants them stopped, even though almost any football cynic could tell you that'll never happen.
Thus, Vilma, who the league said directly contributed to an atmosphere in which opponents' careers could be put in jeopardy, is held to the same level of culpability as the coach who embraced the program put it in place by Gregg Williams.
That's ridiculous on almost every front. Going after Payton and Williams, along with GM Mickey Loomis and assistant head coach Joe Vitt, makes infinitely more sense. Suspending Vilma for a year, while ostensibly not touching some 20 other players that the NFL's own investigation suggests were in on the bounty plan, is almost purely symbolic -- and I'd be surprised if it stands.
There is nothing about Vilma's story that is going to provoke sympathy, nor should it. The league says its investigation led it to "multiple independent sources" who indicated the Saints linebacker not only helped fund the bounty program, but offered specific $10,000 payoffs to any teammate who knocked out Kurt Warner and, later, Brett Favre during playoff games.
Coming on the same day that the NFL lost one of its most decorated alumni, Junior Seau, under dark circumstances that reminded some people of the collective toll a life in the league can take, Goodell's aggressive stand against targeted violence wasn't likely to face much opposition. Still, some distinctions are in order.
First, to answer the obvious: No, this isn't the military. And yes, adult football players absolutely ought to be held responsible for their actions, regardless of who initially set them in motion. If I do something against the rules and try to blame it on my boss for ordering me to do it, realistically, we're both going down. And that's how it should be.
But when placed in the context of sports leagues, it is obvious -- and has been for decades -- that football is unlike any other endeavor in the U.S. It is tremendously more structured. It leans very heavily on a system in which orders do, in fact, get followed. Its locker rooms are closed-off places where secrets are kept. It is fundamentally a sport of violence.
Goodell has staked a fair amount of his legacy as commissioner on dealing with an issue that, in fairness, he strictly inherited. In the midst of a raft of lawsuits by former players claiming the NFL for years ignored evidence of the terrible cumulative effect of concussions and other injuries upon them, Goodell is attempting to modify the behavior of a blood sport played for money. It is an uphill climb.
But Goodell does himself no favors when he goes after Vilma, Anthony Hargrove and two other Saints players, and basically glosses over the rest of the league's findings. If accountability is the object, then why aren't the other 20-odd Saints players being called out? And if the point is that Vilma was a ringleader, that puts him at the top of the second tier of responsibility.
Goodell isn't interested in objective fairness here; if he were, he might take Vilma off the field for four games, perhaps eight. Fairness is not the point. Sending a message is the point. Perhaps it'll ultimately be lost amid a locker room culture that has always rewarded crushing hits that change games -- amid the culture of a sport that, in general, rewards the biggest hitters with the best contracts -- but that's the point all the same.
And Vilma is nothing more, really, than the object of Goodell's effort. All these years later, Vilma is a football prop. It is, for any NFL player, a fairly familiar theme.