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A LEAGUE AT THE CROSSROADS
PETER KING
July 30, 2012
Once seemingly impervious to criticism, the NFL embarks on the 2012 season plagued by issues that threaten its invincibility
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July 30, 2012

A League At The Crossroads

Once seemingly impervious to criticism, the NFL embarks on the 2012 season plagued by issues that threaten its invincibility

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Training camps open this week for the NFL's 93rd season, and you should be able to hear the sigh of relief from league offices in New York City. Finally, some good news. A year ago the world's most successful sports league was flush with positivity after signing an unprecedented 10-year labor deal with players and agreeing to a series of new 10-year television contracts that will raise TV income by an average of 63% a season. But in the past six months the NFL has had to confront so many vexing problems that you wonder, Is anybody happy out there?

The Saints' bounty issue isn't going away; a settlement conference this week in New Orleans between lawyers for players and the league isn't likely to end the legal wrangling over the suspensions—a total of 31 games—handed down to four players in the scandal. Nearly 3,000 former players and players' family members are suing the NFL, claiming it knew about the dangers of head trauma and concussions and failed to disclose the risks. The suicide of former star linebacker Junior Seau in May raised further questions about the well-being of retired players and how the league prepares them for life after football. In June the NFL locked out its game officials after contract talks broke down, and last weekend it began training 120 replacement refs, reaching down into (gulp!) the high school ranks for potential fill-ins. And the police blotter has been filled with NFL names: Since Super Bowl XLVI, 29 players have been arrested—that's 1.5% of the league's rosters—including three on DWI charges in the final week before camps opened.

"I'm a little surprised and a little disappointed at the number of issues we're facing," Giants co-owner John Mara said last week.

None of this is going to break the league or make the 111 million Americans who watched the Super Bowl last February turn the TV off come September. But the bigger the game gets, the bigger the potential pitfalls it faces. The NFL did not make Goodell available for this story, but his right-hand man, legal counsel Jeff Pash, told SI last week, "We have never been more optimistic about the future of the NFL. I don't think there has ever been a better time to be part of the NFL.... The fact that there are disagreements or dustups, that is on the margins."

Those margins are pretty wide. Here's what's in them.

THE SAINTS' STRANGE SEASON

The reigning NFC South champions began training camp this week in Metairie, La., with the aim of being the first team in NFL history to host the Super Bowl on its home field. It would be a remarkable feat considering that the Saints don't even know who their coach will be when they open on Sept. 9. Sean Payton, who the league says turned a blind eye to a system of performance payments and bounty bonuses to players, is suspended for the year; this fall he'll be an assistant on his 12-year-old son's team in Dallas. Linebackers/assistant head coach Joe Vitt was named the interim coach and will run training camp, but he will sit the first six games for his role in the scandal. Owner Tom Benson hasn't decided who will be in charge when the regular season kicks off.

While the Saints prepare for their unlikely run at greatness, union lawyers for suspended players Jonathan Vilma, Anthony Hargrove, Scott Fujita and Will Smith will throw a Hail Mary, hoping to get a Louisiana judge to override Goodell's power to ban players—a power agreed to by the NFL Players Association when it signed the new CBA a year ago. A source close to the four players said last week that it was "highly unlikely" they would consent to anything less than a complete overturning of the suspensions, because accepting a lesser sanction would tacitly acknowledge that they had acted improperly. As Hargrove, who's now with the Packers, told SI last Friday, "I didn't do anything [wrong]. Why should I be punished for it?"

Hargrove was suspended for eight games, and his case has been the most controversial of the four. The league said he lied to investigators in 2010 about the existence of a bounty and pay-for-performance system, and in June the NFL showed reporters sideline video from the 2009 NFC Championship Game, the audio of which, it said, reveals Hargrove saying, "Give me my money," after Vikings quarterback Brett Favre had to be helped from the field in the second half. In the NFL's eyes, that quote confirmed that there had been a bounty on Favre, to be given to any Saint who knocked him out. (The league says Vilma put up $10,000 toward that bounty.) Hargrove is adamant that he never said those words, and his face is shielded from the camera when they are spoken.

Last week Pash admitted that an audio expert brought in by the league could not confirm that the voice was Hargrove's. But, Pash said, even if it wasn't Hargrove on the tape, his suspension was justified. "The question is not, and never was, Was Anthony Hargrove paid some money for making a hit?" said Pash. "It was, What did he know, and what did he deny?" The league asserts that if New Orleans players had been forthright in the first investigation two years ago, the alleged bounty system would have been discovered and dealt with then. Hargrove denies that he misled the league.

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