|If Saints owner Tom Benson has evidence refuting bounties, he's keeping it to himself. (Getty Images)|
ATLANTA, Ga. -- There was no evidence of the New Orleans Saints' bounties presented to NFL owners at Tuesday's annual spring meetings, and there hasn't been since the club first was punished.
But sooner or later there must be ... and there will.
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NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who suspended Saints coaches and players and penalized the organization, said he expects to make public evidence of the Saints' bounty system. He didn't say when. He just said he would, and hallelujah.
He should. He must.
It's not that I believe the Saints were "railroaded," as some players told CBSSports.com's Mike Freeman earlier this week, nor do I believe that the NFL has chosen a path "to mislead the public," as NFL Players Association president Domonique Foxworth charged. But I do believe the NFL must show us something, anything to demonstrate to Saints' fans and the New Orleans organization itself why Goodell punished the club, its coaches and its players.
Owners and general managers don't, and they made that clear Tuesday. I spoke to several, and none wondered why they haven't seen proof of what happened with the Saints by now.
"Frankly," said one GM, "I don't think anyone should want to see more evidence because I believe it's of a broader scope. I've known Roger for too long to know he doesn't do things flippantly. Trust me, these guys have done their due diligence."
That's one way of looking at it. Here's another: The Saints' defensive coordinator charged by the league admitted his culpability and apologized for it. The head coach, who first denied a bounty system existed, later accepted responsibility, too. And the owner of the New Orleans Saints ... well, he paid the fines, lost the draft picks and absorbed coach and player suspensions without opposing them.
I don't care what you think about Saints' owner Tom Benson, but I do care that he has attorneys who get paid a lot of money to keep him and his football team out of trouble, and I don't remember one of them advising Benson to oppose the league's action.
Yet his players believe they were "railroaded," and, yeah, so they could've explained themselves to the commissioner and league security in advance of the suspensions -- but they didn't. Yet, once the hammer dropped, they complained they were falsely accused.
And maybe they're right. But let's just say I don't believe that Goodell would impose historic penalties without provocation and without substantial cause.
"I don't think anybody in here thinks Roger would do something like this without being thorough," one owner said. "It's just not his style."
That makes sense. But it won't quiet the Saints. So do us all a favor and quiet them already. Release just enough evidence to make them shut up. From where I sit, it sure looks as if they're in denial, but I don't know that for a fact. So show me a fact ... some piece of tangible evidence ... that demonstrates this happened, and let's move on, for crying out loud.
When former U.S. district attorney Mary Jo White earlier this month spoke to reporters on a conference call set up by the league office she said there was proof of bounties being offered, and there was proof of bounties that were paid.
OK, then, show us. I don't mean I want to see all 18,000 documents or 50,000 pages of evidence. I don't want to see who was naming names, either. What I want to see is proof that money was offered and that money was paid. Period.
Fortunately, that's going to happen.
And it should. It's not that I expect it will pacify angry Saints fans or make Goodell's critics evaporate. But maybe, just maybe, it will subdue some of the rhetoric from the Saints, so we -- and they -- can put this ugly episode behind us.
I know what they are alleged to have done. I know that one of the principals confessed. I know that the owner who should want to fight this thing to clear his team's name has not. But I also know that some of his players continue to insist on their innocence.
So, once and for all, prove them wrong.
"I have to do is what's in the best interest of the game long-term," said Goodell, admitting he's sensitive to the criticism. "You're not always right. So you have to listen to others perspectives. You may not agree with all of it ... so you listen to it. You make sure you're thoughtful, take your time and try to reach a conclusion that's good for the game. It's not a popularity contest."
What's good for the game now is getting this New Orleans Saints' nonsense behind us. First, we will hear on their grievances. Then players will go through an appeals process. Then there will be another decision. And then we can see the evidence of what happened, and get this thing behind us.
Good. It's about time.