06 June 2012

The Distorting Language of BountyGate

The latest revelation from BountyGate came Tuesday in the form of Scott Shanle's interview with the media after the Saints' mini-camp practice. Here's the important part via the T/P's Mike Triplett:
"The Saints did have a pay-for-performance program, which included payouts in the range of $500 and $1,000 for a variety of big plays, including big hits. And those hits were sometimes referred to as "cart-offs" or "knockouts" when players were injured. But Shanle said that didn't mean the intent or purpose of the pay-for-performance system was to target players for injuries ...
'Gregg said crazy stuff,' Shanle said. 'If you take him literally, you're gonna be locked up. But he was the best motivator I've ever been around.' ...
[Shanle] said players would lose money just as easily as gaining money, thanks to fines for penalties and mental errors. So penalties or illegal hits were actually discouraged."
As of now, this appears to be the most clear-cut and concrete evidence produced. 

It's an on-record statement from a Saints' player detailing the realities involving a program that rewarded Saints' defenders. It's not a mischaracterized memo from one of the NFL's dubious sources nor is it a polemical retort from the NFLPA.  

When you strip away everything else and focus solely on the language employed by Shanle, it's documented that Saints' defenders were, at times, rewarded when (if?) opponents were injured--whether that be for a play, a series, a quarter, a game or more, we're not certain.  

Equally important, it's a reiteration that a "bounty" system did not really exist. There's an enormous difference between the rewarding of clean, legal hits that incidentally result in injury, and a systemic program of incentivized malice. 

Frequently, players knock out their opponents with legal hits and it's an accepted part of the game. Remember what happened to Pierre Thomas in the divisional playoff game against the 49ers? It was a legal hit that knocked him out of the game, and Donte Whitner incurred no penalty or fine. 

That's not to say that retroactively rewarding a player for producing such an injury is acceptable, but it is to say that defenders league-wide are motivated to deliver legal, crushing hits to their opponents regardless of outcome. And a legal hit that produces injury should not be viewed in the same light as a malicious, illegal hit premeditated for injury, the latter of which the Saints have been repeatedly accused. Yet curiously, we've seen very little--if anything--indicating such. Isolated incidents do not a three-year program make.   

What we're really dealing with here--in the grand scheme of BountyGate--are the larger problems of language, intent, perception, and motivation. On-field activity has long since taken a backseat. 

Specifically, we're dealing with the language of Gregg Williams' program and the NFL's characterization of it; the intent of Saints' defenders; the perceptions and presumptions of guilt generated by bombast and public condemnations; and the motivation of the NFL to insulate itself from further litigation. 

Language is the crux of the issue over these several fronts, and it controls the sequence of events. Had the Saints used the term "game-changing plays" instead of "knock-outs and cart-offs," where might we be today with the absence of corroborating on-field evidence? Would the NFL have been in the position to undertake such drastic action as it did? 

Replace the widely-publicized term "bounty program" (the NFL's characterization) with "performance program" (the Saints' internal description) and how does the dispensing of punishments change? How would the change in that terminology alter public perception? 

Remember, we're not dealing with on-field issues anymore. We're dealing with perceptions. The NFL produced zero on-field evidence of systemic malice (rewarded or otherwise), nor did it punish players for engaging in on-field violence (the players were punished for violating the personal conduct policy).  

Nowhere was this chasm between rhetoric and action, and the importance assigned each, more clearly distilled than in Williams' controversial, playoff pre-game speech in January '12. Where Williams' exhortations proved violent and over-the-top, the material result produced on the field fell far short of the rhetoric espoused with the Saints' defense incurring no penalties and injuring no opponents. 

No matter to the NFL, when it came to the Saints, the rhetoric became the controlling feature. 

The language of Gregg Williams and the accompanying performance program, though, represented a reality that never existed as presented publicly, yet it provided the NFL a "justified" avenue to satisfy its own ends. After all, if the prevalence of malice existed over three seasons, then why did the NFL not punish the deeds--those specific injurious plays that were supposedly rewarded--as they repeatedly happened on the field? And even if they didn't punish them in real time, then why haven't we seen those plays after the fact? 

Is it perhaps because Saints' defenders were rewarded for legal, clean hits? Was that the program that actually existed? And almost certainly exists in locker rooms league-wide?

As we've seen consistently under Goodell, misdeeds do not go unnoticed or unpunished. 

Yet in the case of the Saints' defense for three seasons ('09-'11), there was a dearth of on-field discipline from the league

Then seemingly out of nowhere, the Saints were punished for this nefarious system that, to Saints' fans, seemed preposterous. 

When--finally--the league last week identified two games from the '09 season as evidence, they first got it wrong, then were further debunked not by the credentialed, legitimate media but by upstart Saints' bloggers who did the leg work. Mostly, it was much ado about nothing. At least Mike Florio picked up on it.  

Because of that absence of verifiable malice, the present situation is by and large a result of the language used by both Gregg Williams to motivate and subsequently Roger Goodell to implicate. The NFL took the Saints' language, shaped it with a twist of their own, and spun a tale of damnation that allowed them to present to the world their sudden concern for protecting their players--no matter the NFL's systematic denial of disability claims and no matter the legion of former players suing them. 

Again, it was language and its accompanying perception trumping the truths of verifiable action. 

This was the perfectly ideal storm for the NFL to target a rule-bending franchise with a strained, at best, relationship with Goodell and the league. There were allegations by Brad Childress in '09 of a Favre bounty; the vicodin scandal; the association with Ornstein; and the Saints' contempt and disregard for the league's official media policy among other things. 

Here was a perfect mark asking to be made example of at the precise moment in time when the NFL needed to come out forcefully in favor of player safety. So what happened?  

A pay-for-performance program that rewarded legal hits that sometimes unintentionally resulted in injury was shaped to portray an institutionalized injury program that incentivized malice. And even though we're still yet to find any on-field evidence of players being knocked out illegally--or the accompanying documentation of Saints' defenders being rewarded for doing so--we're so far along in this convoluted, serpentine process that what's done is already done, truth be damned. 

Sean Payton isn't coming back this year, no matter what truth prevails.

Perception predominated to the extent that the presumption of guilt was, for far too long, the overriding characteristic of this quagmire. 

And that perception enabled Roger Goodell to dispense and uphold unprecedented, punitive action against the Saints. 

It stemmed much less from actions, and more so from words. 

Goodell's goal was to make an example of some team, and the Saints fit the bill. Like the dim, flickering bulb he is, Goodell publicly admitted as much this past week. As he said, his "actions speak loudly" and that was his goal: to manufacture the perception that the NFL truly cares for player safety (which, of course, is bullshit). And which in all likelihood will prove irrelevant when the NFL inevitably ends up in court to face its former players. But no matter to the 2012 Saints. 

The fact that the Saints put themselves in a precarious position by bending rules and alienating the league office does not justify the NFL's medieval sanctions in light of what really happened.  

At this point, it seems extremely doubtful that the NFL will produce reliable, vetted evidence that concretely connects on-field malice with cash rewards. After months, we're yet to see definitive evidence of either. If it was out there, we'd have seen something compelling if not from the NFL, then from journalists and fans who have looked but found little. It's unarguably weak in foundation. It's only strong in rhetoric. 

As such, the NFL simply conflates "pay-for-performance" with "pay-to-injure" and assumes the public at large is too dumb to notice the difference. Which, for the most part, they might just be.  

No matter the protestations, no matter the injustice, the ship has sailed.  

This was petty theft punished as grand larceny, partly a show of force and partly an act of retribution.

Luckily, the Saints are uniquely qualified to take on the challenges of unprecedented adversity. If it's anything like 2006, it will be wonderfully memorable. 

Bring it on.