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NFL suspensions and the need to protect integrity of sport

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's punishment of New Orleans Coach Sean Payton recalls other instances in which sports organizations have issued strong rebukes.

March 21, 2012|By Lance Pugmire
  • Chicago White Sox star Joe Jackson was one of eight team members who were suspended for life for allegedly accepting $100,000 from a New York organized crime figure to lose the 1919 World Series.
Chicago White Sox star Joe Jackson was one of eight team members who were… (Transcendental Graphics…)

Precedents matter — both in courtrooms and in commissioners' offices.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on Wednesday decided the New Orleans Saints' bounty program — which paid players for injuring opponents — crossed that crucial threshold where transgressions threatened the integrity of the game.

He suspended Saints Coach Sean Payton for the 2012 season. Goodell also imposed an indefinite suspension on former Saints and current St. Louis Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, while Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis was suspended for eight games and linebackers coach Joe Vitt for six games. The NFL also fined the Saints $500,000 and took away two second-round draft picks.

"When there's a risk to the game, you need to send an unequivocal message," said sports ethicist Michael Josephson of the Los Angeles-based Josephson Institute of Ethics.

Goodell is following a nearly century-old precedent set by then-baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. In 1921, Landis, who was also a federal judge, suspended for life eight members of the Chicago White Sox — including "Shoeless" Joe Jackson — for allegedly accepting $100,000 from a New York organized crime figure to lose the 1919 World Series, which they did, to the underdog Cincinnati Reds.

"No player that throws a ballgame; no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ballgame; no player that sits in a conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing games are planned and discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball," Landis said.

Pete Rose, the game's all-time hit king, was banned for life by commissioner Bart Giamatti in 1989 after a probe unearthed that Rose was betting on his Reds team while managing it. Rose's acts "have stained the game," Giamatti said. "There is absolutely no deal for reinstatement."

"Those gambling cases had the capacity to destroy the game by making the public believe the outcomes were no longer on the up and up," Josephson said.

The NFL had its own gambling issue to confront in 1963 when commissioner Pete Rozelle banned Green Bay Packers running back and former league most valuable player Paul Hornung and All-Pro defensive tackle Alex Karras of the Detroit Lions.

Rozelle ruled the players had associated with gamblers, with Hornung betting up to $500, and Karras making about a half-dozen $50 to $100 bets. Hornung and Karras were reinstated and played in 1964.

Drug use has also incurred the wrath of pro sports leagues, even if baseball was glacially slow to respond to performance-enhancing drug use.

Former Dodger Manny Ramirez will start this season with the Oakland Athletics serving a 50-game suspension, after initially being suspended for 100 games for repeated violations of the sport's drug policy.

NBA Commissioner David Stern in 1986 banned Nets All-Star guard Micheal Ray Richardson for repeatedly failing drug tests. Two years later Richardson was reinstated, but no NBA team signed him and he ended up playing overseas.

Violence too has spawned severe repercussions.

In the NBA, Laker Kermit Washington in 1977 was suspended for 60 days for punching and fracturing the skull of Houston Rocket Rudy Tomjanovich.

In 2004, Ron Artest was suspended for 73 games and lost $5 million in salary, heading a list of nine players suspended by Stern for their roles in one of the worst brawls in U.S. sports history. The Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons fought into the stands of the Pistons' home arena, the Palace of Auburn Hills.

New York Islander Chris Simon received two lengthy suspensions from the NHL in 2007. His seventh career suspension (30 games) came for stomping on the leg of a Pittsburgh Penguins player. Earlier that year, he slashed the face of a New York Rangers player and was suspended for 25 games.

Fighting in the NHL remains troublesome to Josephson. The league's "unwillingness to get rid of fighting is almost ludicrous…. It's not a rule unless you enforce it," he said.

Boxer Antonio Margarito had his license revoked for more than a year after he was found to have plaster-hardened knuckle pads in his hand wraps before California state regulators confiscated them preceding a 2009 title fight.

Mike Tyson took the sport's inherent violence to a new level when he bit off part of Evander Holyfield's ear in a 1997 fight and was disqualified. Tyson drew a $3-million fine and had his boxing license revoked.

Tyson regained the license. But Nevada regulators were troubled when he grabbed the arm of Francois Botha at the end of a 1999 bout and they denied Tyson's next license request.

"We were seconds away from another melee," said former Nevada boxing commissioner Lorenzo Fertitta, now chairman of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, of the 1999 bout. "I didn't think those fights were safe any longer for the citizens of Las Vegas. [Tyson] could go get his act together and act in a professional manner elsewhere."

Assessing social impact is often the tipping point when sport commissioners impose mega-suspensions.

"The NFL needs to say it's a family-friendly game," Josephson said. "They need kids to play youth football, and if this [bounty system] was legitimized in any way, you just know bounties would creep down to high school football. You'll never take the violence out of football, but you can't enhance it."

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