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Rabbi Joshua Hess Headshot

Thank You, Roger Goodell, for Choosing the Bible Over Kant

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Recently, Greg Williams, the defensive coordinator of the New Orleans Saints (and now the Rams) was suspended indefinitely for his role in the recent bounty scandal. In addition to punishing Williams, Roger Goodell also suspended Saints head coach Sean Payton for the season, general manager Mickey Loomis for eight games, and assistant coach Joe Vitt for six games. This past week, their appeals were denied.

We all knew and expected the coaches to be punished swiftly and heavily, but no one anticipated such a stiff penalty. In explaining the rationale for the severe punishment, Goodell noted that it resulted from two aggravating factors. Firstly, the Saints organization denied, on more than one occasion, that there was ever any wrongdoing. Secondly, after being notified that the league had incriminating evidence, the Saints made no effort to discontinue their bounty hunting practice. Just recently an audio tape of Greg Williams surfaced in which he urged his players do "whatever it takes" to beat the 49ers in this past year's NFC divisional playoffs. He lobbied them to knock out a certain wide receiver's ACL, and to hit the quarterback as hard as possible, among other gutless and abhorrent acts. (Ironically, the 49ers beat the Saints, and their defense was porous. That's for another time.) It is indisputable that there is sufficient evidence for Goodell to hand out unprecedented penalties, but still, a full year suspension without pay (a loss of $8,000,000) for the head coach? Does that penalty really "fit the crime"?

The truth is, penalties need not always "fit the crime." Often enough, they must be steeper than the crime! When assessing any punishment we must consider the goal of specific deterrence, how to ensure that this person will not become a repeat offender, and the goal of general deterrence, how to ensure that others will not act in a similarly unlawful manner. In this instance, Goodell correctly determined that the most effective way to discourage other coaches in the league from acting similarly is to impose a draconian penalty, thereby sending a strong and unequivocal message that this behavior will not be tolerated. It's unfortunate for the Saints that they have been made an example for the rest of the league, but Goodell rightly put the entire NFL on notice that this behavior is unacceptable.

A focus on general deterrence would not comport with the beliefs of German Philosopher Immanuel Kant who only subscribed to the principle of retribution, I.e. punishing a criminal based on his actions alone, and rejected the idea of general deterrence. To him, human beings should be viewed as ends in themselves and not as a means to an end. The reality is, however, that the our court system routinely invokes the principle of general deterrence when imposing sentences on criminals. And it appears as though Goodell is also not much of a Kantian himself. Frankly, in my opinion, he made the right decision.

In fact, Judaism also endorses the notion of general deterrence. The Bible, in four instances, prescribes stiff punishments upon certain offenders specifically to achieve the goal of general deterrence. The four sinners subject to such penalties are, one who incites others to worship idols, a rebellious son, a rebellious elder and false conspiring witnesses. With respect to the punishment imposed on those sinners the Bible says, "So that they [the rest of the people] shall hear and fear." Indeed, great rabbinic sages such as Maimonides and Saadyah maintain that general deterrence is actually a central component of all punishment in Jewish thought and law.

Perhaps Mickey Loomis, Sean Payton, Greg Williams and the rest of the coaching staff are modern day equivalents of rebellious elders. Maybe they are not. Either way, their behavior has given the NFL a massive black eye. Goodell understands this and his punishments are designed to make sure that this will never happen again. He has taken yet another important step in making the game of football safer. In the process, he has correctly invoked the verse, "And the entire [NFL] nation will hear and fear."

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