There have been intimations and half-whispers for a few years now. Certain dark things were hinted at that were essentially impossible to verify without firsthand access and knowledge. As a Falcons fan, I would have been only too happy to sneer and jive at the Saints if I thought they were playing dirty pool, but I simply didn't believe it. Truth be told, I didn't want to believe it, and I suspect that much of the rest of the league and the public felt the same.
In the name of sentimentality and the telling of great stories, it still seemed too soon after Katrina to contemplate leveling accusations at the team who played a crucial role in the healing of a broken city. It was difficult too, imagining a locker room that contained as nice and forthright a guy as Drew Brees could also contain something this sinister, even if the nastiness was on the other side of the ball. After a two-year investigation, though, speculation is no longer required, and incredulity is no longer an option. The Saints' defense, under the auspices of DC Gregg Williams and with the tacit approval of GM Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton, operated a bounty payout system that rewarded players for inflicting injuries and/or knocking their fellow athletes out of games.
My first thought is that no one should be especially surprised by all this. Not just because rumors have been hovering around the Saints for a few seasons, but because this sort of thing is not exactly unheard of in the NFL. In this new era where "CTE" and "concussion" are watchwords and punishments for illegal hits are dealt swiftly and severely, it's easy to forget that not so long ago the league released yearly video compilations of its fiercest and most brutal hits for our rabid consumption. As long as the guy wasn't on our team (and sometimes even if he was), we got excited when somebody got jacked up good and proper. The visceral nature of impact, the audible crunch of large, strong people colliding at high velocity; these things were part of what made the game enjoyable viewing. It's not a particularly massive leap to conceive of teams dishing out some extra incentives for particularly nasty shots, especially if they removed a valuable opposing player from a game's equation. Now that the thinking about violent hits has turned so dramatically, this will likely (and hopefully) be the last example of a bounty system, but it's not close to the first. I know there has been evidence that Gregg Williams had a similar system in place when he was with the Washington Redskins in addition to the current charges, but he certainly didn't invent this particular wheel.* Which brings me to my second thought: New Orleans is about to pay the piper for 50 years of cultural lag in football.
The Saints are absolutely going to catch hell over this. They should, too, because running a bounty system at a time when we have indisputable evidence of the consequences of repeated impacts on a players' brain is terribly, inexcusably wrong. When the NFL drops the hammer on New Orleans, you can bet Roger Goodell is going to make the ultimate example out of the organization. Common speculations are setting the likely punishment at some combination of fines, suspensions, and lost draft picks. Truthfully, given the vendetta-like nature of Goodell's reactions towards hard-hitting offenders, it wouldn't surprise me one bit if he concocted some entirely different and more "angel of death"-esque penalty. Gregg Williams, Sean Payton, and the other implicated players and team officials could very well be looking for work shortly. The Saints might be rendered quasi-impotent as a franchise for the next few seasons by the financial and draft sanctions.** Which makes all the sense in the world on the surface. No one in their right mind would defend the indefensible, and financially backed malicious intent cannot be defended. The thing is that the Saints, like James Harrison before them, have the unfortunate distinction of being in the wrong place doing the wrong thing at the wrong time in the most conspicuous fashion imaginable.
At this point, the NFL's survival depends upon a total culture change. The class action lawsuits have started and they're not going to stop, and the league is striving mightily to distance itself from the ethos that gave birth to those lawsuits. The continued goodwill of public perception is largely dependent on that distance from the past. And in the name of projecting an image that is more refined and more attuned to the risks inherent in the game, the NFL is probably going to crucify the Saints, who so recently authored one of the league's great narratives; a narrative that is being ground into shards by these latest revelations. Because their backs are against the proverbial wall, the league will seek and implement the harshest punishment possible. It may very well be necessary as a deterrent to future teams and players engaging in reckless and dangerous side-games on the field. Heck, it may even be justified. I'm still not certain it will be entirely fair.
Insidious as their recent behavior has been, the Saints have been playing on the proverbial railroad tracks for a comparatively short amount of time. They're going to get hit by a train with a half-century head of steam because the league now must belatedly cover its tracks and adopt a different posture. We'll have to wait and see what the final verdict entails, but Roger Goodell could wind up committing his own version of unnecessary roughness.
*Remember the Eagles/Cowboys "Bounty Bowl" in 1989? At the time, Buddy Ryan's bounty on Dallas kicker Luis Zendejas wasn't considered foul play, it was just an extra-zesty dose of vitriol infused into an already heated rivalry.
** Forbes might need to revise that Most Miserable Sports Cities list if the Saints get punished into irrelevance and the Hornets continue exist in NBA-owned limbo.