American history is rife with peace officers who cleaned up the streets. Wyatt Earp out West. Eliot Ness in Chicago. Now Roger Goodell on the football fields of the 21st century.
Goodell has laid down the law in his 51/2 years as the NFL commissioner. He’s come down hard on players for a variety of infractions. Off-field behavior. Performance-enhancing drug use. Unsportsmanlike conduct on the field. Players from PacMan Jones to Ben Roethlisberger to Ndamukong Suh can testify to Goodell’s wrath.
Some have said Goodell has tough on players, but soft on executives and/or coaches. Bill Belichick did not receive a suspension for his spying escapade a few years ago. Instead, Belichick and the New England Patriots were fined and docked a first-round draft pick.
But there was no softness in Goodell’s penalties for the New Orleans Saints and their bounty program, paying players to injure opponents. Coach Sean Payton? Suspended without pay for a season. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, now with the Rams, suspended indefinitely; he will be lucky to get off with only a year out of the game. General manager Mickey Loomis, eight games. Assistant head coach Joe Vitt, six games. Plus assorted suspensions for any players involved. The Saints also got the customary fine and loss of two draft picks.
Wow. Tough justice. But absolutely necessary.
For the better part of two seasons, the NFL has mounted a campaign to make the game safer. Rule changes. Suspensions for players who break the safety rules. Sideline decorum on handling injured players. And then comes the news that the Saints knew of and promoted a program within its organization to pay bonus money to players who could knock out opponents.
Yes, such things have been going on for decades. At least back to Buddy Ryan’s Eagle days, maybe before. Ryan used to proclaim such tactics.
But that was then. In these times, you can’t have symposiums on the long-term health effects of playing pro football, all the while a franchise sets rewards for serious injury of opponents.
There are lots of people — fans, media, players, all segments — who still aren’t serious about the health concerns in the NFL. Goodell aims to change that. If you have to be dragged kicking and screaming into enlightment, if you have to be suspended or fined or whatever to see that this is a serious health issue, then so be it.
Pro football is a brutal game. It has got to become more civil, else it could disintegrate quickly. Do you remember the 1975 movie, “Rollerball”? Here’s a synopsis of the sport in the movie: “A violent, globally popular sport similar to roller derby in that two teams clad in body armor roller skate or ride motorcycles around a banked, circular track. There, however, the similarity ends. The object of the game is to score points by the offensive team throwing a softball-sized steel ball into the goal, which is a magnetic, cone-shaped area inset into the wall of the arena. It is a full-contact sport in which players have considerable leeway to attack opposing players in order to take or maintain possession of the ball and to score points.” In the original short story on which the film is based, the object of the game is to kill off the other players.
The NFL is not Rollerball. But when Buddy Ryan’s Eagles and Payton’s Saints try to turn the game from spirited competition to manual warfare, the sport takes a major step toward inhumanity.