When Roger Goodell speaks, his words usually resonate.
There was something different, however, about the NFL commissioner's latest edict, the one that was supposed to close the book on the sordid saga best known as "Bountygate" once and for all. And it wasn't as if one of the most hard-line disciplinarians the professional sports world has ever come across suddenly turned soft, either.
Just a few short hours after the ever-uncompromising Goodell handed down a season-long suspension to New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma and multi-game bans to three other current or former Saints players for their prominent roles in the team's elaborate bounty scheme, word began to spread of legendary linebacker Junior Seau's sudden and shocking death from an apparent self- inflicted gunshot wound at his Southern California home.
The news rendered a usually front-page message about the sport's biggest offseason scandal to a mere footnote, while Seau's heart-wrenching fate and its frightening link to that of many other former players should have the league thinking twice about some of its present policies.
In many ways, Seau had the kind of career of which every athlete dreams. A San Diego native, he was drafted in the first round by his hometown Chargers in 1990, spent 13 decorated and glorious seasons with the franchise and became arguably its greatest player ever -- certainly its most popular. He was also the fiery defensive force behind the only Super Bowl team in Chargers' history, the star-crossed 1994 squad that's now seen an alarming eight former members die before the age of 45.
But what really made Seau even more of an icon in his native city was his effervescent personality and excessive philanthropy. His foundation established numerous programs and raised countless millions for needy children in San Diego, while the community residents who would often cross paths with the 12-time Pro Bowl representative saw him as a regular guy they were intensely proud to call their own.
Seau's life off the field, however, wasn't quite as easy as it was on it. His marriage eventually failed, a sports-related television show after retirement was short-lived, and he was involved in a mysterious car accident two years back that many speculated to be a suicide attempt.
While that still didn't make Wednesday's events any less startling, it's not as if there weren't subtle warning signs or that Seau's deadly actions were foreign to those of other members of his creed. Former NFL safeties Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling both shot themselves to death within the last 15 months following long bouts with depression believed to be caused by repeated concussions, and ex-Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Andre Waters took his own life in a similar fashion in 2006. Three former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive linemen, most notably Hall of Fame center Mike Webster, all died under strange and tragic circumstances between 2002 and 2005, with each revealed to be suffering from mental illness brought on by the inherent violence of the game.
None of those players were quarterbacks or wide receivers, the glamour guys whom the league has gone on a virtual crusade to ensure their proper protection with recent rule changes and a continued increase in defensive unnecessary roughness penalties. And it's understandable why those positions have been looked out for with an increased urgency. They're the ones more often placed in vulnerable, unguarded situations that expose them to potential injury. But most importantly, people are paying to see Tom Brady and Calvin Johnson, not Jake Long and Joe Thomas.
That's not to say the NFL isn't greatly concerned about the safety for all of its players. However, its methods toward creating a less hazardous working environment still remain somewhat misguided.
Giving players more down time in the offseason and eliminating a few padded practices a year aren't going to solve the problem. It's the speed, power and intensity of the actual games that create the catastrophic cases like the ones above.
Yet three years from now, when many of the league dignitaries will be speaking of Seau in heroic reverence while he's being enshrined as a first-ballot Hall of Famer, there's better than a 50/50 chance the NFL will either be on or embarking upon an 18-game regular-season schedule.
Sure, it's an easy call for Goodell and the owners to make, when all they're sacrificing is a few additional dollars that will without question be recouped and then some by an extra meaningful home game. It's the guys like Webster, Waters, Duerson ...and now Seau... who wind up paying the ultimate price for that short-sighted decision.
So by that measure, maybe Goodell is actually doing Vilma a favor with his 12- month exile, as a year away from the game certainly can't hurt the disgraced defender's long-term health prognosis. And the Saints really weren't devastated by the commissioner's most recent ruling, as the team already had a contingency plan in place for Vilma's expected lengthy absence by signing free agents Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne, both of whom are younger and coming off a better 2011 season than the man they will be replacing.
The loss of top pass rusher Will Smith for the first four games may have been more of a stinging blow when realizing New Orleans' utter dearth of proven options in that area. Still, when considering that over 20 players were rumored to be involved in banished ex-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' illegal program -- including such other key Saints still around as safety Roman Harper, linebacker Scott Shanle and tackle Sedrick Ellis -- the damage really could have been far worse.
Other teams wound up bearing the brunt of Goodell's latest wrath, however, despite being nothing more than victims of circumstance. Green Bay defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove and Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita were levied eight- and three-game bans, respectively, after their level of participation in the program during previous tenures with the Saints was revealed.
It's a break that's both unfortunate and a bit unfair for the Packers and the Browns, neither of whom did anything scandalous or wrong. It's too bad a deal couldn't have been brokered that punishes the player but not the team, like if Hargrove and Fujita remained eligible to compete but had to forfeit their salaries for those games, but there's no way the Players Association would ever agree to such a scenario.
Of course, the union indirectly had a willing hand in the process by allowing Goodell to solely stay as judge, jury and executioner of all player discipline when the new collective bargaining agreement was drawn up last summer. That may not stop it from pursuing a repeal through the outside courts, a process that could drag on conceivably for another year or more, meaning the story that the NFL wishes would just go away may not be over.
Unfortunately, Seau's death was a sad and sobering indication that the league's initiative on player safety also remains an ongoing fight.