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Why the NFL hit the Saints back even harder

As a New Orleans Saints fan, I am stunned. Stunned that other Saints fans are stunned.

Shame, and eternal shame.

Black and Gold Nation: You really didn’t think our boys, blessed or not, were gonna get off lightly, did you? Yes, this is the NFL. Yes, taking players out is a long-standing tradition. Yes, bounties have been put on the other teams’ heads before. The Oakland Raiders had a open-secret bounty program in the 1970s, where defensive backs George Atkinson and Jack Tatum used a point system to determine how badly they had injured their opponents. This was made public by Tatum in his autobiography, which bore the charming title They Call Me Assassin. No one flinched.

Then there’s the Thanskgiving 1989 game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Philadelphia Eagles, which became forever known as the “Bounty Bowl” because D-town put a $200 price on Eagles kicker Luis Zendejas. A measly two small? On a defenseless kicker? Yes.

The public outrage over this ethical violation of good sportsmanship rocked the sports world for decades. Well, for hours. Well, for the postgame conferences, where Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson said he had “absolutely no respect” for his opponents, and didn’t get a chance to tell Eagles coach Buddy Ryan because he “put his big, fat rear end into the dressing room.”

Ryan’s response: “I resent that. I’ve been on a diet, lost a couple of pounds. I thought I was looking good.”

Everyone laughed.

Here’s the problem: this happened back when W’s dad was President. In 1989, a new TV show called The Simpsons hit the airwaves. Time Warner was still two separate things. The Soviets were pulling out of Afghanistan. And Bush’s dad, a Republican President, banned assault weapons.

It was a long time ago. When football was watched by American men, and virtually no-one else.

Within one year of his rise to the position of Most Powerful Man in Sports, NFL  Commissioner Roger Goodell instituted a Personal Conduct Policy for players. With fines. And suspensions. One year after that, he fined Patriots coach Bill Belicheck for “Spygate.” It’s Goodell who’s been trying to keep players’ salaries down so that teams can build more stadiums. It’s Goodell who wants to turn two preseason games into regular games, extending the season to 18 games, at a time when injuries are already a major problem.

Football, 1970.

So Roger isn’t concerned about the health of the players. He’s concerned about the financial health of the league. The bottom line. This is why the NFL plays overseas games every year now. Also why the Pro Bowl now happens the week before the Super Bowl. And why the players and fields are bedecked with a very unmanly pink everything during Breast Cancer Awareness month. Why Madonna performs a fabulously gay halftime at the Super Bowl. Why that nerddom-for-jocks, fantasy football, has suddenly become a third of what sports announcers talk about. Why the league not long ago launched NFLRush.com, a site just for kids who like football, replete with cartoon avatars that represent their favorite teams, and which battle each other like Pokemon.

Pete Rozelle (1960-1989) did the impossible: he made professional football a bigger sport than college football. His successor, Paul Tagliabue (1989-2006), did the impossible: he got it to overtake baseball as America’s favorite sport. Roger Goodell wants to do the impossible: make NFL football the world’s most popular entertainment, period, safe for grandmas and LGBT and your girlfriend and people in India. And he won’t let anything stand in his way.

Football, 2012.

Injuries have been a major problem in this transformation. American men consider them part of the sport, but now that Mom and Sis and Grandma sit right alongside you after Thanksgiving dinner, yelling at the game, the league has to walk a fine line between the kinetic stuff guys like and the star power everyone else tunes in for. (When I was a kid, and some player’s helmet came off and rolled around on the ground, my Dad would joke, “There’s a head in there.”)

Hollywood producers don’t have to worry about Russell Brand getting his spine crushed during his next movie (as much as we all wish that would happen), or about Cameron Diaz paying Emma Stone to have something bad happen to Natalie Portman. Football is big-business entertainment now, and that’s why injuries have to be minimized as much as possible — witness how the rulebook coddles quarterbacks these days, and kickers, and receivers on the receiving end of a hit that could conceivably cause a conscussion.  Oh, a institutionalized plan to create crippling injuries? A secret plan? That’s right out.

The Saints were not the only team doing this kind of thing, but Goodell will make sure they’ll be the last, because they were the most blatant. (Former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams obviously forgot another rule, that internet rule about not putting anything in an e-mail you wouldn’t want your Mom to read.) And while some see this as overkill — in the words of a highly-placed Saints source, “killing a flea with a bazooka” — Roger’s not about to let something as tiny as a flea ruin his plans for world domination. As a source close to him told Peter King: “This is a seminal moment in the culture change we have to make… Every team needs to hear the message that we’re in a different era now.” Indeed.