I’ll never forget my conversation with Sean Payton in 2006, after the New Orleans Saints had shocked the NFL just a year after Hurricane Katrina by racing to a 5-1 start in advance of their bye week.
Inside the Saints’ indoor practice facility, Payton recalled the conversation he had with his mentor, Giants coach Bill Parcells, who had cautioned him before he accepted the job as the Saints’ new head coach that “Job One” would be figuring out “why that franchise had never won anything before.”
One of the conclusions to which Payton came was that the live-and-let-live culture of New Orleans – Bourbon Street as a teeming, exotic Garden of Temptation – fueled a type of gluttonous excess that easily could derail celebrated, 20-something athletes with time, money and promising careers to burn.
That’s why Payton said choosing the right players – players who had talent but who also were highly intelligent and had exhibited good character and decision-making in college – was the key to fulfilling Job One.
Payton made the comments knowing his players would have a week’s furlough without his direct supervision. The Saints wound up losing their first game after the bye week, but they rebounded from three losses in four weeks to finish 10-6 and make it all the way to the NFC Championship Game.
Fast forward six years. If there is a cautionary tale to Bountygate, it is that, in the crunch, when character really mattered, the head coach himself fell victim to temptation, the one that asserts that professional success, at any cost, trumps everything else.
Need a nasty defense? Just get it for me, and don’t ask questions.
The NFL has evidence that Payton lied about the existence of a bounty system run by defensive players and coaches to pay cash for injuring opposing players. The NFL also says Payton urged fellow coaches to be complicit in the lie that the program did not exist. He persuaded his coaches to make sure when they talked to NFL investigators, their “ducks were in a row.”
The reality is that while practically every NFL team has engaged in pay-for-performance at some level as a fraternity bonding experience, the Saints brought the art form to the corporate level. And then they lied about it, repeatedly, when they were caught.
The penalties imposed by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell are harsh and unprecedented, but they are justified. The innocent – the fans – must suffer with the guilty, because the social nature of an offense means there are social consequences.
Perhaps Payton will use his one-year suspension and the loss of $7.5 million to re-evaluate where he and the organization that brought so much joy to so many people got so totally off track. If the sledgehammer punishment is taken in the spirit of fraternal correction, this coming year of professional uncertainty can be a time of personal growth and the rebirth of a passion to win the right way.
Everyone makes mistakes – some more visible than others. In this Twitter world, where a camera is on every hip or inside every purse, there is nowhere to hide. Celebrities and NFL head coaches are such easy targets.
But Payton needs to figure out why he didn’t win this one. That now has become his Job One.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.