Bounty saga boils down to power

If the players involved in the Saints' bounty scandal really want to assign blame for their current dilemmas, they need not keep pointing their fingers solely at commissioner Roger Goodell.

Instead, they should take a long, hard look at their brethren. Goodell has the power to issue the punishments that have caused such an outrage precisely because the players handed it to him. That he's used his authority to its fullest extent shouldn't come as a surprise to anybody.

That should be the overriding lesson that comes out of this drama. As much as the players involved -- Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, defensive end Will Smith and ex-teammates Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove -- have fought to maintain their innocence, their pursuits have seemed like sheer folly when considering what they're facing.

Their outrage is understandable because the public evidence against them has never been overwhelming. But this matter has never been only about proof. It's always been about power.

The Saints are in this predicament mainly because of ill-fated decisions made in 2006. At that time, the NFL was tainted by a handful of players who were giving the league a black eye on a regular basis. You should know the biggest names by now: Adam "Pacman" Jones, Chris Henry, Tank Johnson. They ran afoul of the law just enough to make key people around the league fear that the NFL's collective reputation was frightfully endangered.

Looking back, things were never that dire. Those issues came down to a few immature, young men spoiling the good life for everybody else. The problem was that former players' association chief Gene Upshaw and some respected veterans didn't see it that way. They were tired of answering questions about the scandals of others when they appeared at autograph signings and business meetings. They wanted an immediate solution to what they perceived as a growing problem.

That was the mistake that should leave so many current players fuming and flabbergasted. In order to control the Pacman Joneses and Chris Henrys of the world, the players gave Goodell the authority to rule as he saw fit. Back then, he was the point man for cleaning up the game, maintaining its integrity. Today, he's a perfect villain in the eyes of certain players, a man Vilma recently described as "judge, jury and executioner" following his appeal.

This was a bad deal for the players from the jump. They were just too blind or naïve to see that six years ago. They never should've let the problems of a select few determine the policy that affected every player working in the league. What's more, they should've never embraced the idea that their league could be cleaned up only if Goodell was encouraged to be so brutal on those who challenged the integrity of the game.

The power given to Goodell -- also known as the personal conduct policy -- sounded great when it was applied in extreme cases. The commissioner banned Jones indefinitely after the oft-troubled cornerback kept winding up in handcuffs. He came down hard on Michael Vick after the quarterback was caught in a dogfighting scandal. Goodell was just as rough on coaches and executives, most notably his ruling on the New England Patriots' Spygate scandal in 2007.

Decisions like those turned out to be the easy stuff for Goodell -- smashing screwups in the wake of high-profile stories. The more complicated aspect of his job is what we've been seeing play out in New Orleans. The Saints were apparently brazen enough to establish a bounty program that focused on, among other things, taking out key players on the opposition. They also were dumb enough to believe they could keep running it long after the league told them to shut it down.

That's the important point to remember here: It was the lying and the cover-up that ultimately did in the Saints, not the program itself. Goodell dispatched his investigators to review roughly 18,000 documents that ultimately revealed the Saints' operation. The first stage of suspensions came down on former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (indefinite), head coach Sean Payton (one year), general manager Mickey Loomis (eight games) and assistant coach Joe Vitt (six games). The second stage hit Vilma (one year), Hargrove (eight games), Smith (four) and Fujita (three).

All those players have appealed to Goodell to reconsider his punishments because of lack of evidence. But their hopes are certainly compromised by the admissions of Payton, Loomis and Williams on the existence of the bounty program. It's also difficult to believe Goodell would've gone this far without knowing he had something solid on everybody involved.

On top of all that, the commissioner has never needed much concrete evidence to discipline anybody. Goodell used Jones' prior misdeeds as reason to suspend him eight months before the player's most prominent legal issue -- a 2007 shooting incident at a Las Vegas strip club -- was ever resolved in criminal court.

The simple truth is that Goodell can do whatever he pleases to protect the league's integrity. The players couldn't strip him of that power during last year's lockout. They will tell you that they attempted to do so when negotiating the current collective bargaining agreement. The league will sing a different song on that matter -- that the players were too concerned with money and offseason downtime to take a serious stand on downsizing Goodell's muscle.

We'll never how it really played out, but that doesn't matter today. What's more important is that the players see the entire picture as the Saints battle against what they see as severe injustice. They don't have a commissioner who is power-mad, dictatorial or downright evil. Instead, they have one who is merely doing exactly what they asked of him six years ago.