NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's yearlong suspension of New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton for his role in the team's "bounty" system of paying defensive players for injuring opponents is a monumental overreaction.
Goodell's naiveté is stunning.
Hurting opponents is one of the goals of every defense. Otherwise tacklers wouldn't be taught to attack ball carriers at full speed and drive through their targets. That technique isn't designed with the well being of offensive players in mind. It's designed to punish.
Obviously it was wrong and incredibly stupid for the Saints, under the direction of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, to offer a reward program for hits that disabled opponents.
And it's even more egregious that the Saints continued the practice for two years after the league questioned them following complaints during their 2009 Super Bowl season and reports of a $10,000 bounty on Vikings quarterback Brett Favre.
While Payton was not directly involved in the bounty program, the Naperville Central and Eastern Illinois graduate was aware of it and didn't stop it. He should have, and he deserves punishment for failing to act.
But the punishment meted out by Goodell is too strict. It essentially destroys the Saints, considering that assistant head coach/linebackers coach Joe Vitt, Payton's next in command, has also been suspended for six games. Every Saints player will be punished.
Williams, now the St. Louis Rams' defensive coordinator, is suspended indefinitely, with his status to be reviewed after the 2012 season. Williams' fatal flaw was his arrogance in continuing the bounty program after he knew -- or should have known -- that the league was watching him.
So a year for Williams can almost be justified, given that he was the ringleader and has a long history of such behavior. If nothing else, he should be punished for brazen stupidity.
But an indefinite suspension seems a bit severe, given that defenses at every level of football have always sought to dish out as much punishment to skill-position players as possible. Defensive players on every team in the NFL are rewarded for big hits, with increased playing time, and the end results are more lucrative contracts.
Defensive players seeking to impose their will on opponents is one of the cornerstones of the game. It's one of the time-honored clichés in football, and it doesn't mean trying to sway their political beliefs. It means hitting the guy opposite you so violently and so frequently that he loses his desire to compete.
What Goodell is saying is that it's OK for teams to try to hit Tom Brady as often and as viciously as possible, within the rules, as long as you don't pay a bounty for doing so.
How, exactly, is that making the game safer?
It isn't. It just gives Goodell the opportunity to look like a crusader.
Unfortunately, it comes at the expense of Payton and the Saints. They are being offered up as scapegoats by a league that ignored the dangers of concussions for decades, and also turned a blind eye to the use of human growth hormone while boasting of its steroid-testing policy.
"There is no place in the NFL for deliberately seeking to injure another player, let alone offering a reward for doing so," Goodell said. "Any form of bounty is incompatible with our commitment to create a culture of sportsmanship, fairness, and safety. Programs of this kind have no place in our game and we are determined that bounties will no longer be a part of the NFL."
Sure, Commissioner, just because you said so, the problem will disappear.
Sorry, but as long as they're keeping score, and as long as jobs are determined based on wins and losses, certain players will have a bounty on their heads, whether its literally or figuratively.