|With his actions, Roger Goodell has set the bar high, not only for players, but everybody else. (Getty Images)|
Things will never be the same in the NFL, not after Wednesday, not after Roger Goodell lowered the boom on the New Orleans Saints in spectacular fashion -- earning himself the appreciation of sickened NFL fans and, I am sure, the respect of skeptical NFL players.
|More on Saints|
|NFL coverage on the go|
By suspending Saints coach Sean Payton for one year and GM Mickey Loomis for eight games, and docking the franchise $500,000 and two second-round draft picks, Goodell delivered the strongest message yet that he's not just playing word games when he talks about two of his favorite topics, personal conduct and player safety. That's the message Goodell delivered to you and me on Wednesday, that he's serious about taking the thuggishness out of the NFL, even if the thugs in question are the head coach, general manager and former defensive coordinator of one of his most popular franchises.
To the players, Goodell delivered another message -- one that has to make them reevaluate their opinion of the man who has seemingly been their biggest enemy for years. Goodell's the one who has been judge, jury and appellate court for player misbehavior, wielding his gavel like a scythe as he slices two games from Ndamukong Suh, four games from Ben Roethlisberger, eight from Tank Johnson. Goodell also led the owners in their brutal labor lockout with the players last year, a staredown that had some players scrambling for loans to pay their bills.
Players don't like Goodell. Oft-disciplined Steelers linebacker James Harrison surely spoke for more than himself last summer when he called Goodell a "crook" and a "devil" and said, "If that man was on fire and I had to piss to put him out, I wouldn't do it. I hate him and will never respect him."
What Goodell did Wednesday won't necessarily make the players like him, but they have to respect him after he went after his own side -- owners, management -- with more firepower than he has ever aimed at the players. A full year for Sean Payton, and even six games for the likely interim, Joe Vitt? That's brutal. Michael Vick spent more than a year in jail for masterminding a dogfighting ring, and he missed just two games. Kenny Britt and the late Chris Henry went through periods where each was a one-man crime wave, and they didn't get what Sean Payton got.
And Payton didn't hit anybody. Didn't hurt anybody.
Didn't stop anybody, either.
The NFL treated Payton, his general manager and the Saints organization itself like the Penn State board of trustees treated Joe Paterno after the Jerry Sandusky scandal -- not as the perpetrator, but as the people in charge, people who had the power to put a stop to unacceptable behavior but couldn't be bothered to act.
The next NFL coach who comes across a bounty system will act. That's what this does. That's what it ensures. It doesn't quite guarantee bounty systems will disappear outright -- my guess is players will do it on the sly -- but bounties will no longer be offered with the tacit approval of the organization itself.
Ask some defensive coordinator out there if he wants to be the next Gregg Williams, who was suspended "indefinitely," which might just mean forever. I mean, if Mickey Loomis was given eight games and Sean Payton was given a year, and Gregg Williams was the guy who actually ran the bounty -- yet Goodell couldn't be bothered to pin a time frame on him -- that tells me Goodell simply couldn't count that high. Five years, 10? Forever? Williams' suspension apparently will last somewhere in that range, as well it should.
Goodell's unforgiving treatment of Williams was expected. But this? A year for Sean Payton, the offensive whiz with the Frankie Muniz face and the elephant testicles, the guy who helped the Saints win Super Bowl XLIV by calling for that onsides kick to start the second half? That's a statement by Goodell, and the statement is this:
Don't f--- with me.
Goodell just spoke a language players understand, and while he has spoken that language for years, for years those words have been aimed at the players themselves. This time, Goodell aimed it at his own side, maybe even at the expense of his own career, if my colleague, Ray Ratto, is to be believed in this thought-provoking column right here.
Players will notice. They have to notice. Goodell did this for them, sticking up for player safety in a way that makes clear he isn't trying to make friends and influence people. Goodell just went after one of the billionaires who writes his checks, and if there's a stronger form of leadership than that, I'd like to see it.
Meantime, those of us on the outside -- media, fans, fence-sitters willing to give the NFL a chance -- now understand how serious Goodell is about taking care of his players, protecting them today so they can better enjoy a lifetime of tomorrows.
Deathly serious? Sure, I'll go there. Goodell just showed he's deathly serious.
And in a sport as dangerous as the NFL, there can be no other kind.