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Mark Whicker: Saints aren’t victims in this

By Mark Whicker, The Orange County Register –

Within the hour, the red herrings began piling up higher than the levees on the Mississippi.

And the New Orleans Saints and their fans rose up with the sweet anger of the persecuted.

Football is violent by nature, they said.

Linebackers have put prices on the heads of quarterbacks since the days of leather helmets, they said.

Other NFL teams have bounty programs and Roger Goodell doesn’t burn down their buildings, they said.

It’s called changing the subject, a national pastime even when it’s not an election year.

Let’s sweep away all these dead fish.

The Saints cheated.

But that is not why Coach Sean Payton is banned from coaching in 2012. That is not why ex-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is suspended indefinitely and might never work an NFL game again.

The Saints lied about the fact they cheated.

That is why.

Ask anyone who has a nodding acquaintance with NCAA investigations. Self-reporting is the preferred course, the one that brings a quality of mercy. Failing that, it’s good to tell the truth. When you cover up or clam up or try to deflect the scent, you’re done.

And, for the short term, the Saints are pretty much done.

Commissioner Goodell damaged them severely when he ordered them to cough up a second-round pick in this draft and another one next year. That is no handslap. Andy Dalton and LeSean McCoy were second-round picks.

Then he suspended Payton, costing him $8 million, effective April 1.

He suspended General Manager Mickey Loomis for eight games, beginning on opening day.

He sidelined Williams, whom the Rams had hired as their coordinator.

Penalties for linebacker Jonathan Vilma and other bounty hunters on the Saints defense — which, when last seen, wasn’t particularly violent at all — are presumably coming.

The Saints had anticipated some punishment for Payton and had groomed Joe Vitt, formerly Chuck Knox’s assistant with the L.A. Rams. Goodell took care of that by suspending Vitt for six games.

Shocking? No doubt. In 1963, Commissioner Pete Rozelle gave Paul Hornung and Alex Karras one-year suspensions for gambling. With Goodell in charge, Hornung and Karras might be wearing orange coveralls and cleaning trash on the interstate.

But the Saints left themselves exposed because Williams ran the bounty program for three years, without adequate restraint from Payton and Loomis.

They told the commissioner they had stopped, and yet they had not. “We were misled,” Goodell said.

In the 2009 NFC Championship Game, a nation shuddered as the Saints savaged Brett Favre, and the Minnesota trainers kept coming out to scrape him off the Superdome turf.

Now we know the Saints were acting with extreme prejudice, deliberately trying to put a legend on a takeaway cart.

What is the problem with a bounty program, when players routinely promise hundred-dollar bills to teammates for spectacular hits?

Well, one problem is that if a bounty program is left unchecked, it can become a significant salary-cap violation.

But isn’t everybody trying to render his opponent inoperative, with chop blocks and helmet-to-helmet contact?

Yes. But the line between the way the game is routinely played, and what the Saints and other teams instituted, is really not so fine.

In one instance, a player is delivering force within the league’s guidelines and, if an injury occurs in that context, that’s just a consequence of football.

In the other instance, a player is specifically intending to damage the career of a colleague, a fellow union member, a brother-in-arms.

It’s the difference between throwing inside and having a fastball get away, and throwing behind the batter’s head.

On a Sirius XM show Tuesday, former USC and NFL defensive tackle Tim Ryan said he tried to hurt somebody every time he played and estimated that every player does.

Pat Kirwan, his co-host, asked, “So why do you need a bounty then?”

And Saints cornerback Jabari Greer blamed Goodell’s severe hammer on “the court of public opinion” and declared that the Saints defenders were not thugs, but fathers and husbands.

As for the everybody-does-it charge, Goodell is asking each NFL club to verify that it is not doing it. Cooperation should not be a problem.

Maybe a half-year for Payton would have sufficed. Maybe the threat of a lifetime ban is unfair to Williams. But Goodell, armed with the info, disagreed.

This is the same franchise that was given sweetheart treatment for the way it won a Super Bowl, 41/2 years after Katrina, and soothed its broken city.

Now the Saints are no longer ambassadors. Neither are they victims.

Football must be dangerous. Football need not be malicious. Goodell’s goal was to ensure it never is again. Like the quarterbacks that the Saints attempted to maim, he did not go over the top. He merely took what they gave him.

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