There is a world of difference between causation and accountability in the National Football League and in American politics and government. If you look at what NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell did in response to the lawless actions of the New Orleans Saints and President Barack Obama’s response to President George W. Bush’s lawless actions, you will see that difference as a gulf as vast as the difference between night and day.
Barack Obama, upon taking office, stressed the need to forget the past and to look forward, shrugging off calls to investigate the Bush administration for misdeeds. Roger Goodell, on the other hand, stressed the need for accountability and for a strong message to discourage further threats to the league’s integrity and the health of the players. Roger Goodell has said repeatedly that nobody is bigger than the NFL; the message we got from the Bush administration was that nobody was responsible for what was happening even while it was happening; the message from the Obama administration is that even afterward (or especially afterward) nobody is still responsible, or that wherever accountability lay, it is better we just forget the past and move forward with shining optimism. The thing is, enemies don’t learn from magnanimity and magnanimity doesn’t discourage further misdeeds – indeed, it encourages them. Caesar pardoned his enemies; they famously stabbed him to death at the first opportunity.
It is very much doubted lessons will not be learned in the NFL, however. Here is what Goodell did to punish the Saints for running a bounty program from 2009-11 in which players were paid to injure other players in order to get them off the field (and ensure a Saints victory):
- Saints head coach Sean Payton is suspended without pay for the entire 2012 season.
- Former Saints/current Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is suspended indefinitely. (Commissioner Roger Goodell will review Williams’ status at the conclusion of the 2012 season and consider whether to reinstate him.)
- Saints GM Mickey Loomis is suspended without pay for the first eight regular-season games of the 2012 season.
- Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt is suspended without pay for the first six regular-season games of the 2012 season.
- The Saints are stripped of their 2012 and 2013 second-round draft picks and have been hit with a $500,000 fine.
Here is what President Obama did to even investigate the Bush administration’s “alleged” (they were often very public) misdeeds:
That’s right. That’s not a typo. It’s just what it looks like…nothing. The NFL produces 50,000 pages of evidence for a scandal involving the intent to injure players and potentially end their careers. The Obama administration produced precisely 0 pages of evidence involving the intent to destroy sovereign nations for the benefit of modern carpetbaggers. More, the Obama administration declined to even investigate. The NFL investigated for two years. They investigated not only the Saints, but the entire league of 32 teams to be certain it was not happening elsewhere, as some claimed.
People have asked why Sean Payton was suspended for an entire season, effective April 1. Roger Goodell’s answer to this was precise and proper: if you did not know what was going on, as head coach you should have. This principle has a long tradition: if you are in charge, it is your responsibility what happens on your watch. This principle was driven home in the Nuremberg Trials after WWII: “I didn’t know” is not an excuse; that applied to Hitler and to his henchmen. Sadly, it does not seem to apply to U.S. government officials, elected or appointed, including the president.
The messages sent are worlds apart: nobody is bigger than the NFL but the President and other government office holders are bigger than the country, or indeed, the world. In the NFL, not only the team, but the head coach, the defensive coordinator, and assistant head coach are all punished, as will be the players involved – 22 to 27 of them. But the United States can invade a foreign nation for no real reason at all and not one single person is held accountable? A war as long as the Trojan War, and just as ruinous if far less glorious: hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded and millions displaced, prisoners tortured, women raped by their coworkers, the federal government and taxpayers defrauded by contractors, and not one single person is to blame for the debacle? Nobody? Really?
There is something seriously wrong with the message being sent here. We are taught, most of us, about causation and accountability from an early age, that our actions have consequences. There are many expressions related to this: you called the tune, now dance to it; you made your bed, now lie in it, etc. How is it that accountability we learn as children through corporal or other forms of punishment doesn’t extend to the national level? Bush couldn’t find anyone to blame in his administration for the terrorist attack on 9/11 and Obama refused to even look for a responsible party in the Iraq War and its long and repulsive trail of consequences. While the government through its various military branches will, like Goodell punish players (individual soldiers) it will not punish those responsible, as Abu Ghraib demonstrated to the world – but these are scapegoats, nothing more. Those actually responsible, those who set the conditions, those on whose watch these atrocities occur, are not touched.
The lesson learned in the NFL is that there will be consequences for threatening the integrity of the game. The lesson learned in government is that there will be no consequences even for invading and plundering a country for personal gain, when that country posed no risk at all to the United States. Republicans want to hold President Obama accountable for various and mostly imagined infractions but those same Republicans were entirely in favor of the Bush administration’s lawless actions. If there is to be justice, if there is to be a message sent, it must be applied to all equally. Commissioner Goodell has done that, by demonstrating that not only will players be punished for their bad conduct but so will coaches, front offices, and the teams themselves.
What a unique concept. It is a shame we can’t apply it to the United States government. Instead, corruption runs rampant and the very people who are supposed to protect the American people from that corruption are the ones responsible for it in the first place (I’m looking at you, Congress). Even when the president does try to lay down the law, he runs into opposition from those benefitting most from the corruption. Imagine if, in attempting to levy his punishment of the Saints yesterday, Roger Goodell had the owners gather together and tell him that, sure, we chose you to be the boss, Roger, but you can’t do this because it’s not in our best interest.
But what is inconceivable in the NFL is commonplace in the United States government. More’s the pity.