The Saints docudrama is a scandal in the purest sense of the word. It contains almost all of the classic elements -- wrongdoing, disgrace, a general loss of faith -- and, as a bonus, designated bad guys in Sean Payton, Gregg Williams & Co. Smiting the louts, for the NFL, is a visceral response.
But in this case, what you really have is a scandal being played out under the specter of a much larger scandal. And to understand that overriding truth is to understand why Roger Goodell reacted as harshly as he did, on a level that took away the breath of so many people following the story.
The concussion issue is pro football's elephant in the kitchen. It is the story that won't go away. Earlier this month, ESPN's Lester Munson tallied up the number of lawsuits filed so far against the NFL that relate to injury or concussion in a direct way. The number was 659.
Munson was reporting on the sad, incredibly compelling case of Dave Duerson, whose family is suing the league for wrongful death in the wake of Duerson's suicide at age 50 -- a suicide the family believes was directly attributable to concussion-related brain damage. The suit includes the claim that the NFL practiced "propaganda" for years, convincing players that concussions essentially were injuries of no consequence.
That is a scandal of a very specific nature. Here's the extension of that thought: an entire series of class-action lawsuits, many of which ultimately might be rolled into a single, titanic case against the NFL, filed on behalf of former players who maintain that the league "actively deceived" players about the risks of head injuries, as one case in Philadelphia asserts.
Or, as Super Bowl-winning quarterback Jim McMahon, a co-signer on one of the suits, put it on ESPN's "Outside the Lines" program, "We knew what was going on with pretty much every other part of the body. But we didn't know about the head trauma. And they did. And that's the whole reason for this lawsuit. That's just like flat-out lying to you. That's looking you in the face and lying to you."
Which is more scandalous: the team that rewards its players for specifically taking out opponents during games, or the league that knows about the long-term risks of injuries and tries to tell its employees that they're no big deal?
To be clear: Such complicity by the NFL has not been proved, only asserted. But the number of cases against the league is rising dramatically and constantly. Three weeks ago, a Houston lawyer representing former Cowboys lineman Michael Myers said he was evaluating the claims of more than 50 other former players -- and, as Munson's reporting bears out, the man is one of many such attorneys processing many such claims.
Roger Goodell did not create nor preside over this phenomenon. A case can be made, in fact, that Goodell is a man whose recent actions -- tightening rules on tackling, instituting concussion-clearance benchmarks, going after blatant head-hunting of the sort practiced in New Orleans -- demonstrate a real concern about the injury issue in the NFL and an attempt to address it.
And that's exactly the case that is being made -- by the NFL itself. It brings us back to the Saints, to Payton and Williams, to the whole grisly mess.
Goodell was bound to go for the most severe discipline he thought he could impose because anything less would be at odds with the other actions he has taken as commissioner when it comes to guys getting their blocks knocked off. Not only that, but Goodell, acting in the best interests of the league he represents, has to be able to establish that the NFL is doing everything it can to address the problem.
He can't change history. But he can work the present and the future -- and, clearly, he will.
I have no problem believing that Goodell was willing to slap down Payton and Williams, among others, for being stupid enough to ignore an NFL directive and brazen enough to outright lie about it. That alone will get you popped by a commissioner who wields a big stick.
But the backstory here goes so much deeper than an isolated case of pay-the-hit-man. Goodell knows it. The injury backlash, the concussion lawsuits inform every decision he makes related to any form of on-field contact or evil intent.
The collective modern story of the NFL is, in part, one of epic violence. That makes all the sense in the world. It's a violent sport by design and by evolution. And no matter how many rules this or any commissioner puts into motion, as long as football is played as a full-contact sport, players are going to get hurt, sometimes severely.
But for the league to be perceived -- or convicted -- as a party that didn't or doesn't do anything to stop the most wanton of the violence, or to acknowledge the consequences of head shots and the like, is the kind of scandal that can bring an industry to its knees. The most Goodell can do at this point is blaze a path going forward. And that is the Saints case in the context of the largest picture available.