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Shop Talk: Were NFL Suspensions Fair?


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, after five years on the air, we decided to ask some of our previous guests in Faith Matters for their reflections on the future. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, we continue our Barber Shop roundtable. Our guests are freelance journalist Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, columnist Mario Loyola and, in his first Barbershop appearance, the former attorney general of the United States, Alberto Gonzales.

I just had one more topic I wanted to run by you, gentlemen. The NFL investigation into that bounty system, where players paid other players for hard hits, it's resulted in the suspension of four players. Defensive captain Jonathan Vilma received the stiffest penalty. He's out for an entire year without pay. Now, that can be an eternity in the relatively short career of a professional football player. And I wanted to ask you guys if you think this was the right call. Arsalan, you're the mad football fan here. What do you think?

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Yeah. You know, I think it was the right call. But I do think that it was disproportionate to the penalties given to the coaches. So, Jonathan Vilma, who is alleged to have offered $10,000 for the taking out of Brett Favre or Kurt Warner during playoff games, you know...


IFTIKHAR: ...which is a pretty big deal. You know, suspended for the entire year. As we know, you know, football players have a shorter, you know, career lifespan, so that's essentially 10 percent of his, you know, professional income. Scott Fujita, who now plays for another team and two others, but Vilma was the strongest one.

What's interesting is that, you know, general manager of the New Orleans Saints, Mickey Loomis, and other members of management only got six or eight games. We all know Sean Payton, the head coach, got a one year suspension and Gregg Williams, the former defensive coordinator of the Saints is suspended indefinitely from football.

It is a shot across the bow. I think it sends a resounding message to every team around the country that this sort of program, whether or not it's been going on for a long time, will have a zero tolerance policy moving forward.

MARTIN: Jimi, what do you think?

IZRAEL: I think it's kind of a joke. I think it's going to go on on the low. That's why I think it's kind of a joke.

IFTIKHAR: Well, they thought it was going on the low and they...

IZRAEL: Well, I mean - well, they got caught, but...


IZRAEL: But I don't think this is going to stop it. This is not going to stop the hard hits. This does not stop people putting bounty on other players' heads. I hope that it does, because my son has an interest in football. You know, and I don't want him to think that that's the business, that - oh, snap, daddy, can I have $5 if I take that kid out? You know, no. I don't want him thinking that's the business. By the same token, I doubt very seriously that this will stop the practice.

MARTIN: Judge, what do you think?


MARTIN: You're a football fan, I think.

GONZALES: We certainly don't want to stop the hard hitting. That is what makes, I think, football so attractive to many sports fans around the country, but I think this is going to send a very powerful message. I think it will be a disincentive for people to engage in this kind of conduct. And I think when the sport is looking at injuries today and possible litigation down the road against the NFL, I think this is a smart business move by the NFL, quite frankly. So, I support the decision.

MARTIN: Mario, what do you think? I know you're glad your beloved Green Bay Packers don't seem to have been implicated. But what do you think?

MARIO LOYOLA: No. I think when teams lack the finesse of the Green Bay Packers, they have to just, you know, use brute force and...



LOYOLA: So I'm not surprised at what other teams are doing.

MARTIN: Do you think that this is fair? Do you think that the punishment meets the crime, as it were?


MARTIN: I'm sorry I had to reach for a cliche. I apologize, but...

LOYOLA: No. But I - look, I think that it's very unseemly to have this kind of thing going on. I mean, you know, the NFL should stand for sportsmanlike conduct. And, I mean, hard hitting doesn't mean that you have to violate the sort of basic ethic of sports, which is sportsmanlike conduct.

MARTIN: Judge, I have to ask you, though. I have to ask you, though. The appeals process here is that you appeal to the person...


MARTIN: ...who made the decision, which is the commissioner of the NFL. Now, I understand that this is not, you know - but as a former judge yourself, I just have to ask. Do you think that's fair? Don't you think there should be some outside entity?

GONZALES: Well, I suppose, if I'm a player and I don't think it's fair, I guess I can go to court and seek some kind of relief. We haven't seen that happen. I haven't heard any talk that that's going to happen. But, you know, the players know this going in. You know, they know this is the process and they know what the rules are. They know what the consequences are. And they are suffering the consequences of their decisions.

IZRAEL: So, don't kick...

GONZALES: So, now the military commissions are starting to look better, aren't they?

MARTIN: Oh, no. You did not go there.


MARTIN: You did not go there. You did not go there. Arsalan, what about you? I mean, as the civil rights guy here - well, let's assume that everybody here believes in civil rights. Let's just say - but as the civil rights lawyer, do you think that's fair?

IFTIKHAR: I mean, it is due process, you know, within the confines of the NFL legal structure. So, Roger Goodell issues a statement and issues a decision and they want to appeal it and Roger Goodell says: Hmm, you know what, I really like my decision and I'm going to uphold it.

And, you know, Sean Payton and Gregg Williams, the coaches, appealed also to Roger Goodell, which is the same system. It's not like there's a, you know, two-track system of NFL justice, so to speak, so everybody gets the same fair shake.

IZRAEL: So all this legalese just really boils down to: Don't hate the player, hate the game.


IZRAEL: OK. Good. That's all right. There we go. There we go.


IFTIKHAR: Exactly.

IZRAEL: Got it.

MARTIN: All right, Jimi. I'm going to ask you to predict. Five years from now, are we still going to be talking about this?

IZRAEL: Yes, absolutely.


IZRAEL: I assure you that we'll still - I mean, this is - it's football. It's not mahjong. Of course, we're still going to be talking about it. I mean, this is - the game is about hard hits. You know, it's about - we like it to be about sportsmanly conduct.

GONZALES: This isn't about - this isn't about hard hits. This is about bounties.

IZRAEL: But we - and we'd like it to be about sportsmanly conduct, but it just - you know, like I said, this is the real world.

LOYOLA: And I think, you know, the talk about hard hits and things like that - I think, in five years, I think the discussion is going to shift more towards former players and the effects that, you know, a lifelong - you know, Dave Duerson, former, you know, safety of the Chicago Bears took his own life a few months ago and told his wife to, you know, donate his brain to science to, you know, to study the impact of this.

Obviously, we're learning about the untimely passing of former San Diego Chargers linebacker, Junior. So I think, you know, looking at retired players and seeing what sort of long-term impact and, you know, sort of mechanisms we have in place for them moving forward, I think, is going to be the discussion in five years.

MARTIN: We have to leave it there for now.


MARTIN: OK. Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist and presidential fellow at Case Western Reserve University. Arsalan Iftikhar is an author, civil rights attorney and founder of TheMuslimGuy.com. Mario Loyola is director of the Center for 10th Amendment Studies at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. That's a think tank focused on the impact of federal policy on states. He's also a columnist for the National Review. Mario is with us from member station KUT in Austin. Jimi, Arsalan and Judge Gonzales were with us in Washington, D.C. Gentlemen, thank you all so much.


LOYOLA: Thank you.

GONZALES: Thank you.

IZRAEL: Yup, yup. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.