NEW ORLEANS — He could joke about the “Do Not Serve This Man” posters, the mocking float in the Krewe du Vieux parade and a voodoo doll he received, presumably well-lanced with pins. But then, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell grew serious about the issue that has made him a lightning rod for Saints fans.
“There is no question that there was bounty program in place for three years,” he said. “I think that is bad for the players, for the game, and I think the message is incredibly clear: Bounties won’t be a part of football going forward. That’s good for everybody.”
Goodell’s strong declaration of the Saints’ guilt came Friday during his annual state-of-the-NFL address two days before Super Bowl XLVII in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
And it was delivered in the context of improving player safety, which has become a bigger lightning rod than any transgressions of Saints administrators, coaches and players.
“We are making the game better while also evolving into a health and safety culture,” he said. “This is a big priority.”
Goodell is having to deal with a culture that celebrates the physical nature of the game while at the same time is becoming increasingly concerned about the high rate of injuries — which even President Barack Obama addressed recently — and the long-term effects, especially head trauma.
The suicide of 12-time Pro Bowl linebacker Junior Seau last year has been connected to the chronic brain damage that has been discovered in several other deceased NFLers. More than 4,000 ex-players have sued the league.
That’s why, Goodell indicated, he came down so hard on the Saints — not so much because of the bounty system itself, its results difficult to quantify, but because he wanted to send a message to the rest of the league that even the appearance of pay-for-injury will not be tolerated.
“I do think that message has come through clear,” he said. “If there any regrets in this, it’s that we aren’t all recognizing that is a collective responsibility to get (bounties) out of the game to make the game safer. Clearly the team, the NFL, the coaching staffs, executives and players, we all share the responsibility. I regret that I wasn’t able to make that point clear enough to the union others, but it is something we are going to be incredibly relentless on.”
That, he added, means even harsher fines and suspensions for players for excessive hits on defenseless players, which, Goodell pointed out, can cause just as much injury for the one delivering the blow.
That may not mollify Saints fans who felt the team was unfairly singled out and that former commissioner Paul Tagliabue vacating the penalties for players Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove was a vindication of sorts.
Goodell said he understands the fans’ feelings.
“They had no part in this,” he said. “I appreciate their passion and loyalty. I saw that for myself when we were down here for (Hurricane Katrina), and it’s clear to me that that’s what they’re all about.”
Goodell also talked about the hospitality he had received since arriving in New Orleans on Wednesday, including remarks made by Saints coach Sean Payton, whose yearlong suspension Goodell lifted two weeks early last week, made during the annual owners dinner Thursday.
Saints owner/vice-chairman of the board Rita Benson LeBlanc, who sat with her grandfather, Saints owner Tom Benson, near the front of the room during Goodell’s remarks, said she felt people were moving on.
“We’ve had an amicable resolution over last season,” she said. “That is the regenerative spirit of sports. Things happen: Players get injured, bad judgments, all kind of things. You just have to come back together and focus on next year.”
LeBlanc also said she knew that in some minds, justice had not been done, that there was nothing accomplished by dwelling on it.
“People are going to continue to talk about it, and that is the reality,” she said. “But I am focused on the future.”
That future won’t include returning a second-round draft pick to the Saints, which was part of the punishment Goodell dealt out last year.
“There were clear violations of the bounty rule, and that will not be permitted in the NFL,” he said. “That’s not just my judgment. Commissioner Tagliabue came to the same conclusion. The reason we’re not returning any draft choices or any of the discipline is because it occurred and it should not have occurred.”
That won’t be greeted with enthusiasm by Saints fans, but LeBlanc said their ultimately will be rewarded.
“The reality is that this is a very strong league with very strong personalities who work fiercely for our own opinions about what is the greater good for the league,” she said. “Next year, we’re going to be a team to be reckoned with.”