'Bounty' sanctions must be severe to protect NFL's image

I wonder what James Harrison is thinking right now.

I am sure the Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker is anxious to see what fines and suspensions NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has in store for the New Orleans Saints' personnel involved with the implementation and cover-up of their defense's "bounty" program. Harrison has a vested interest in this sort of decision because he has been fined, suspended and clearly made a point of emphasis in Goodell's player-safety crackdown.

The NFL's investigation of the "bounty" program in New Orleans came to the forefront Friday. As news trickled out, the story began to mirror that of the Watergate scandal, which took down many in President Richard Nixon's administration, as well as Nixon himself.

The similarities include an illegal action, outside funding, third-party involvement, an initial denial from all involved, countless lies, insubordination, a failed cover-up, and, finally, an admission of guilt. The truth of the Saints "bounty" case is coming more into focus, and there seems to be the potential -- much like there was with Watergate -- for some high-level officials to lose their jobs.

Bounties have been a part of the NFL for some time, but that doesn't make them right. And based on the initial facts, the "bounty" system seems to have been as much a part of Williams' playbook as any of his blitzes.

Williams has left the Saints for the St. Louis Rams, but his past indiscretions will not go away. Williams violated NFL rules, not New Orleans Saints rules. And he allegedly did this more than once and in more than one city.

Former Redskins players recently claimed Williams had a "bounty" system in place while he was the team's defensive coordinator. Former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy believes quarterback Peyton Manning's current neck problems resulted from a play in a 2006 game against Williams' Redskins defense.

Let's say Dungy is right, and Phillip Daniels was rewarded for his high hit, which bent back Manning's head and neck and knocked off his helmet in the process. If that's the case, then the Redskins violated salary-cap rules and would be subject to huge fines from the league. If the reward money came from a private players fund, however, then the cap rules probably were not violated. The league might want to investigate further to ensure those funds came strictly from players, not the team or any team associate.

Much like with Watergate, the money trail -- who paid what to whom -- will indicate the scandal's reach. I am confident Goodell and the league office will ask the right questions.

Williams apologized through a statement, but that won't buy him leniency from the commissioner. Players like Harrison are watching what Goodell does. If they perceive Goodell as being soft with any of the participants in this "bounty" scandal, there could be a huge uproar, because Goodell has never been soft on safety.

Player safety has been of paramount importance to the Goodell administration, as well as to the NFL Players Association. The league's image also is important, so Goodell's sanctions in this case have to be severe. Goodell must show everyone that he is truly concerned about player safety and the image of the league by doing something to maintain both.

Considering the lying and whatever effort was made to cover up the scandal, Goodell must send a strong message to all involved. Fines won't work. Taking away draft picks and the ability to participate in football will.

Harrison was forced to sit out one game for a bad hit. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was forced to miss four games for conduct detrimental to the league. The New England Patriots lost a first-round draft pick and coach Bill Belichick was fined $500,000 for videotaping opposing coaches' sideline signals. How many games will the commissioner force Williams, Saints coach Sean Payton or Saints general manager Mickey Loomis to miss? What is the right penalty for them?

These are all questions that Goodell must answer. As the ultimate leader, his decision must be consistent with past rulings. Not everyone will agree with him, but everyone has to know there has been a consistent decision-making process. Consistency is paramount for any leader to establish -- consistency in behavior, actions and reactions. Goodell has acted quickly, he has been proactive, and most of all, he has been consistent.

This will be his biggest verdict yet. Further complicating matters, everyone wants a swift decision. However, the more the league investigates, the more damaging details could potentially emerge. Williams is headed to the league office Monday for further questioning regarding the "bounty" scandal.

It took more than two years for the Watergate scandal to run its course. Time isn't of the essence right now. Establishing the total truth is much more important.

Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi.

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