Commissioner Roger Goodell stunned his league Wednesday with the sweeping punishment of the Saints coaching staff that has shelved head coach Sean Payton for all of 2012.
After hearing that Payton had been suspended for a year and Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams indefinitely suspended, Bengals player representative Andrew Whitworth fears what discipline is in store for players in what has become known as "Bountygate."
Whitworth called Goodell's ruling "too harsh," and believes mere words have blown up an inherent part of the game into a scandal.
"I don't know what happened. I wasn't there. I would imagine there should be some kind of sanctions," Whitworth said. "But this is ridiculous. To give a guy the same suspension that you give a guy that went to jail for a felony doesn't make sense. A guy who gets suspended for steroids can come back in four or eight games and make money and we applaud that.
"They weren't gambling. They weren't drinking or driving. If you want to make an example of someone, make an example of someone who commits a crime."
Whitworth understands there may have been salary cap violations that have to be addressed. He also says the Saints were wrong about lying to the NFL a few years ago.
But what he doesn’t understand is what he sees as the NFL trying to deny the violence of the game. Whitworth says players aren't trying to maim or injure, but things are said and done in a certain way because it's a violent game.
"That's the game. That's the way it is when one huge man is trying to move another huge man," Whitworth said. "No one is intentionally trying to hurt anybody. But what coach or player hasn't said, 'Take out that receiver when he catches it over the middle.' Or, 'Hit the quarterback hard enough so the next time he pulls the ball down or flinches or knocks him out of the game.' I mean, that's football."
Whitworth believes there is some hypocrisy to it all. He remembers watching old NFL Films and Ravens Pro Bowl middle linebacker Ray Lewis exhorting his teammates with bubbling aggressiveness and intensity and his line, "I'm not trying to hurt anyone. I'm trying to take their soul."
"That's how the NFL sells their game. You see the hits on the highlights," Whitworth said.
Whitworth doesn't agree with what has been described as a bounty system, an organized payment scheme to reward for getting players out of the game.
But he also knows players engage in competitions that are part of the game.
"You wouldn't believe what we say before we go out on the field before a game," Whitworth said. "We'd be arrested. We're not going to really go out and do that, but that's the mentality of the game."
It's why Whitworth is concerned about how the players are going to be disciplined. He thought Saints cornerback Tracy Porter said it best in a televised interview Wednesday.
"The intent is different than the rhetoric," Whitworth said. "You're not trying to go out there and hurt people. This is a very physical game of collision and contact and you have to have a certain kind of mindset. But what the communication is and what's actually meant, it's just not the same."
This is also personal for Whitworth, a Louisiana native who has become good friends with Payton. In fact 30 minutes before the ruling came down Wednesday, Payton emailed Whitworth to confirm his flight for his gig as the main speaker at the March 30 dinner for the Big Whit Foundation.
Whitworth has had a 50-yard line seat for the enormous impact Payton and the Saints have had on the state.
"I'm sure he's devastated. I mean, the entire season," Whitworth said. "He's done great things down here and really given of his time. It's hard for me to stay down here during the offseason because everybody is always taking about how big and how good the Saints are. I hope that all doesn't get lost in this."