The best way to exert power is not through a show of might, but by applying the grinding attrition of Byzantine bureaucracy.
Roger Goodell and the NFL know this, which is why the league is not flexing its muscles by pounding the suspended Saints players into a board like rusty nails, but by guiding them from Line C to the next available window, where they can fill out form 10889-NotEZ in triplicate. Then get it notarized, with six forms of ID. Then wait five weeks for a decision, which will not be the one they want, but which can be appealed through another round of procedures and paperwork.
Revolutionaries and radicals are great at toppling empires with swords, but they stink at waiting on hold.
Goodell softened the penalties levied at the suspended Saints players on Tuesday evening in much the same way that antibiotics cure a cold, reducing recovery time from one week to seven days. No, it was not quite that ridiculous: Scott Fujita's suspension was reduced from three games to one, though Fujita missed the season opener with an injury and spent September bracing for this decision, so Goodell got the "month in limbo" he wanted anyway. Anthony Hargrove, another of the bit players in the Bounty Scandal and a free agent, had his sentence reduced from eight games to seven. If a team signs Hargrove, he will still have to miss two games (after getting credited with five he already missed), which doesn't exactly help his market appeal.
Jonathan Vilma, the central figure in the saga, is still suspended for a full year, but he gets to keep some of the money he received while rehabbing from an injury; future generations will call this health care initiative "Goodellnocare." Will Smith is still suspended for four games for whatever the heck Will Smith allegedly did.
You, too, have lost track of who did what, and when. Who roughed up Kurt Warner? Who allegedly demanded money after sacking Brett Favre? No one remembers. That's the beauty of bureaucracy at work. Everything is in a thick accordion file labeled Bounty Scandal now, the particulars kept straight by the secretaries and assistants to corporate lawyers, who make sure each scrap of evidence is dated and categorized. The rest of us get confused, frustrated, distracted by everyday lives. Fujita has an injury to rehab and a game to prepare for. Hargrove needs to find work. Even Vilma has finite time and resources. The urge to quit and get on with things is strong.
Ever try to get a charge erased from a credit card bill, or a refund on a prescription or co-pay your insurance provider was supposed to handle? Fill out this form, and this one, and provide this information. Then wait. Then appeal. Can we put you on hold while we contact our supervisor? Hold on, you claimed that the charge occurred on June 19. Our records say June 1h. No, we are not accusing you of fraud, but now you will have to fill out correction forms, including the one that gives us the legal right to accuse you of fraud. Press "three" for more options. You know, what does this disagreement amount to, 60 bucks? Is this aggravation worth 60 bucks to you? If you quit now, no hard feelings.
Goodell was ordered to re-examine and reassess the Saints penalties over a month ago. Goodell did not need a month to come up with his decision. He needed a month to show that appealing his decision takes at least a month, so if you are in a hurry, just accept the existing suspension and get it over with. I compared Goodell to a Roman Emperor when his initial rulings were overturned, and as predicted, Goodell used the process the way Augustus Caesar used the labyrinthine precepts of Roman law. Justice was served, eventually and unsatisfactorily, and you can appeal again if you have the time and resources, which you don't.
Vilma and the NFL Players Association appear to be trudging onward. Their lives have become an endless trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles. Goodell, meanwhile, asserts that there is still a preponderance of evidence in the Saints Bounty Scandal, including proof that players said things like "crank up the John Deere tractor." That sounds like garden-variety boasting, like "let's pulverize them." Is that really what the NFL considers evidence? And who said it? Gregg Williams? Vilma? Hargrove?
There was a ledger of bounties, right? How come Goodell doesn't mention that anymore?
The league has not been very forthright about the exact nature of its evidence. Maybe we can ask for it. Or construct a timeline of who said what, and when, and which appeal yielded which result, and what specific accusations were made about which player.
But that takes time, energy and focus. None of us have that. There are games to cover, and tight deadlines, and everyone is sick to death of this story and just wants it to go away.
Bureaucracy, mightier than any army, triumphs again.