Op Ed: New Saints Scandal Much Bigger than Bounty Issue

I have gone on the record a few times now with my thoughts about the Saints headhunting scandal. For anyone who doesn't want to read the long version, the more concise version is that I don't believe, as some people do, that bounties are appalling in the context of what is an already brutal game. Additionally, I believe that many people who have condemned the Saints the most while enjoying the rest of the brutality of the sport are nothing short of hypocrites.

To further complicate the issue of hypocrisy surrounding bounties, many have speculated that the NFL only came down on the team as hard as it did due to the many lawsuits it is facing/will continue to face over concussions. Bill Simmons echoed some of the above thoughts with regards to the brutality of the game on Grantland about a month after I did. As Simmons is known for nothing as much as his knack for capturing the zeitgeist, it would appear that my original stance ended up having a bit more public traction than I had originally estimated it would.

After receiving some record-breaking penalties for the bounty issue, the Saints organization is in the news again. According to ESPN, going back to the early 2000's Saints management had the ability to tap into communications between opposing team's coaches. The allegations have been vehemently denied by the GM of the Saints, Mickey Loomis. The Volokh Conspiracy has details on the possible legal implications of such practices here if you are interested. Although Professor Orin Kerr notes there that the Saints could be in legal trouble over this, I would rather take a few minutes to discuss why this is morally wrong. Specifically, I believe that there is a strong argument that this behavior, if true, is more morally wrong than what took place in Bounty-Gate.

The bounty system, though it was an example of cheating, merely incentivized behaviors that were legal otherwise. I haven't seen anyone look at this, but I would guess that a lot of the hits that garnered bounties were not even flagged on the field. As noted above, I have argued that, in the context of a brutal game, that this is not such an evil as it was made out to be (On a side note, if you are of the opinion that the kind of violence that happens in football should not be allowed in the first place, that is defensible. However in the context of a world where football is still a legal endeavour, I think that my argument holds up well).

Meanwhile, intercepting communications is an example of the type of cheating which has an impact on the very integrity of the game. Everything from fan expectations to corporate sponsorships to gambling are impacted by cheating of this sort. If any of the individuals with a personal or financial stake in the league start to question its integrity, the league could lose what has recently seemed to be an adamantine position as the king of American sports. That such actions are actually illegal only adds strength to the idea that society views this kind of behavior unfavorably.

So, if these allegations are true, what punishment would be appropriate? Spy-Gate, the Patriots' cheating scandal, could provide some guidance. Though the action here, tapping audio communications, is arguably worse than filming hand-signals which could be seen anyway, in that scandal the Patriots faced fines and lost a draft pick (which could have been two if they had missed the playoffs).

However the league clearly upped the ante with the bounty situation and inflicted more severe penalties for those actions. As I am arguing that this situation is worse again, it could get ugly (then again, if the Bounty penalties were indeed a reaction to upcoming lawsuits, then I guess all bets are off - however, Goodell wouldn't want that to be known either, so this is a tough variable to fit into the equation). One joke making the rounds currently is that the the Saints are trying their damnedest to get hit with the first ever NFL-level 'death penalty,' mimicking the term used when the NCAA shuts down athletic programs due to egregious rule-breaking.

Though that is not even within the realm of possibility, at least not at this point, the NFL should come down very hard on the Saints if these allegations are true. This may include banning certain individuals from the league. Hopefully, the league can move on swiftly from this latest scandal. Its continued dominance of the American sports scene could depend on it.

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