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Roger Goodell and the NFL Still Owe Sean Payton, Saints, and New Orleans an Apology

For any Saints fan that hasn't yet seen the series of interview snippets on You Tube called "In Depth with Graham Bensinger", which feature Saints head coach Sean Payton's sit-down talk with the well-renowned  Yahoo! Sports writer and sports talk show host; I'd highly encourage you all to go and check it out.

Among just some of the many different topics of conversation that Payton opens up and gives his innermost thoughts on:

How he almost DIDN'T take the Saints head coaching job after arriving in NOLA and seeing the lingering devastation of Hurricane Katrina; how he thought that Drew Brees would never want to play in New Orleans after he mistakenly made a wrong turn and took Brees and wife Brittany on a unexpected journey through some of the city's destroyed neighborhoods; eating Cheeseburger Happy Meals from McDonald's with the late, great Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, and hugging celebrity Kim Kardashian right after the Saints beat the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV.

But invariably the conversation turned to the topic that some 6 years after the fact, STILL to this day remains a source of contention between the League and the New Orleans Saints franchise:

"BountyGate" and the alleged cover-up supposedly encouraged by the team to purposely and willfully try to target / hurt other players, via the primary method of motivation: offering money (and lots of it) for each opponent that was taken out.

Speaking at length for the first time in quite a while on the events that took place and eventually led to his 1-year suspension by the League, Payton spoke in more detail about his belief that the NFL office tried to have him fired after the scandal went public in March of 2012.

Payton told Bensinger that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's punishments of him and the Saints were "foolish" (to see this portion of the interview, click the "play" button right below), and were clearly unwarranted.

In previous interviews since that time, Payton has said that he believes that the NFL wanted him fired, but told Bensinger that it was actually late Saints owner Tom Benson who was the one who revealed to Payton that he had gotten calls from two other NFL owners (neither of which was mentioned specifically by name) who were encouraging him to do so.

Payton chose not to "out" or embarrass those two owners publicly (some Saints fans on Social Media believe that one of them may have been Falcons owner Arthur Blank, although it hasn't been substantiated), but he said he made a point to track them down at a league event after his season-long suspension to personally "thank them for their support".

In other words, Payton made it a point to personally walk up to each of the two owners and let then know that he already knew what they had try to do to him that year, behind the scenes.

Payton then told Bensinger that made the NFL operates just like "a large political party" with an agenda, and said the accusations against him, the Saints, and the city of New Orleans were "brutal" and "rigged."

In a nutshell: the League's contention was that the Saints allegedly ran a "Bounty" program for THREE WHOLE YEARS (2009-2011), when the actual truth was that only a few Saints defensive players were ever found guilty of offering "cash incentives" to each other during the 2009 NFL Playoffs (in games against Arizona and Minnesota).

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

Payton told Bensinger that their was never an intent on the part of any Saints defender, to willfully try to end an opponent's career.

But what was encouraged by those players who actively participated in offering up "cash incentives" during those very same 2009 Playoffs, was simply the added motivation to go out and play well.

Payton then alluded to former Saints defensive assistant Mike Cerullo, who is believed to be THE one person who secretly went behind the Saints organization's backs and offered key evidence to NFL investigators, as they worked to portray the Saints as a "rogue" franchise.

As noted by then-ESPN.com NFL reporter John Barr, it was Cerullo who, in a November 2nd, 2011, email to NFL spokesman Greg Aiello, referred to the Saints as a "dirty organization."

Photo courtesy of Central Connecticut University

Back then, Cerullo wrote to Aiello that he had information Saints linebackers / interim head coach Joe Vitt lied to an NFL investigator about a bounty program "along with proof!!"

"I was there, in the cover-up meetings, with players and Joe (Vitt)," Cerullo wrote to Aiello. "I love the NFL and want to work there again, but I am afraid if I tell (the) truth, I will never coach again in NFL. But I was fired for a situation the Saints encourage."

Payton then noted how Cerullo was rewarded by the League for his statements against the Saints a few years later, with a plush new job working in the League's front office in downtown New York City.

In fact, Cerullo remains employed by the League to this very day.

Bottom line: the League wanted to push an agenda for player safety and the on-going issue regarding concussions, by painting their portrait of what happens when a team doesn't adhere to those standards. And the Saints were chosen as the team to "make an example" of.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

Thanks to Cerullo, the League now had the sort of information that could give them the necessary proof that a pay-for-performance bounty system was being run and operated within the New Orleans organization.

However, since that time we all know the truth now of what REALLY happened; and honestly there's no reason for anyone to re-visit those events.

Additionally, with both the (3-1) Saints and the League about to honor QB Drew Brees for his remarkable accomplishment of breaking the NFL's all-time passing yardage record this coming Monday Night against the Redskins, it will be silly to give the events of 6 years ago, any more attention than it deserves at this point.

Photo Credit: Getty Images / Sean Gardner

However, it still needs to be said:

The NFL and Roger Goodell in their obvious rush to judgement, simply made an "over the top" decision to harshly punish the Saints organization.

Essentially, Goodell and the League moved far too quickly on the entire "BountyGate" controversy, just so that they could tell everyone that they were being "proactive" on player safety and the head trauma / concussion issues, in a concerted effort to save face. But instead, they punished the Saints unjustly and too severely for those very same reasons.

Goodell and his cronies at 345 Park Avenue were AFRAID that they were about to receive some big-time public backlash over player safety — and in the rush to cover their asses, handed out the biggest and easily the worst punishment that they could come up with to essentially cripple the Saints franchise and its ability to win games that year.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

Even though all the parties that were involved 6 years ago have all since "moved on with their lives", Goodell still needs come out and finally give some type of an apology to Payton, the Saints, and the city of New Orleans; for making the team and it passionate and loyal "Who Dat Nation" fan-base suffer unjust punishment, for something that they were never really guilty of in the first place.

Unfortunately however, you probably shouldn't hold your breath waiting around for it to happen anytime soon....

 

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Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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