Football bounties and Super PACs: Excess is the common denominator

The answer to the question of what NFL bounties and Super PACs have in common, is one word, “excess.” If we were to expound on it, we might use terms like too much testosterone, bullying, little regard for fairness, and the ends justify the means.

Bountygate is the system in which Gregg Williams, a defensive coordinator in the National Football League, paid bribes to players if they hit opposing players with such violence that they knocked key opponents out of the game. Williams was hired as defensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams in February, 2012, but has never coached a down for the team. Over the three previous years he committed his greatest transgressions when he worked for the New Orleans Saints. This included the 2009 when the Saints became “America’s Team” because four years they won the Super Bowl just four years after the area experienced the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. There’s a certain irony in Williams being a renegade in New Orleans. I hadn’t known that putting bounties on people’s heads was part of the job definition of a Saint.

Previously, Williams had utilized this technique with the Washington Redskins and the Buffalo Bills.

Roger Goodell

Fortunately for the NFL, its commissioner, Roger Goodell, (a) doesn’t like any more violence than is “necessary” in a clean game of tackle football, and (b) doesn’t tolerate having someone tell him a lie to his face. Once he became aware of Bountygate, there was little doubt that the consequences to the perpetrators would be firm and iron-clad.

Goodell is the son of former Senator Charles Goodell of New York City. The senior Goodell was among the last of the vanishing breed of civil, moderate, thoughtful Republicans. The junior’s politics are also known to be moderate, but his commitment to honesty is a fierce as can be.

Senator Charles Goodell campaigned longer before Super PACs had been invented. Super PACs have come into existence over just the past few years. They are less a creation of political parties than they are of the Supreme Court. In 2010, the Court ruled in the Citizens United case that the First Amendment prohibited the government from restricting political expenditures by corporations and unions. The Court ruled that restrictions could still apply to candidates’ official committees, but that anyone or any non-tax-exempt organization could give as much money or in-kind contributions as it wanted to a separate committee that worked on behalf of a candidate. These committees became known as Super PACs. PAC is an acronym for Political Action Committee. They are indeed super because the magnitude of the money that they receive and spend is unprecedented.

David Axelrod, a top political consultant to President Barack Obama, reluctantly agreed to allow Super PACs to form and help the president. Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich already have huge ones. When asked why he was following suit, Axelrod said “we can’t play touch football while they’re playing tackle.”

Super PACs can do virtually anything legal on behalf of a candidate, except coordinate directly with the official campaign committee of the candidate. The extent to which this “restriction” is described in a previous Occasional Planet piece that reports on former Federal Elections Committee Chairman Trevor Potter being interviewed by Stephen Colbert.

While a Super PAC is supposed to be separate from a candidate’s official campaign committee, its leader can be the candidate’s best friend. The head of the Super PAC can be a business partner of the candidate. A candidate can’t sit down one-to-one with an official from a Super PAC to discuss strategy, but the candidate can deliver a speech to an audience in which he describes what he would like to see someone (e.g. his Super PAC) do to advance his cause. Newt Gingrich did exactly that prior to the South Carolina primary.

Just as bounties in football thoroughly undermine the limited civility of an inherently violent sport, Super PACs undermine the limited moderation in a political campaign. Football bounties take cheap shots at opposing players; Super PACs run the dirtiest commercials against opponents of their candidates.

Perhaps the one difference is that bounties may well be eliminated because the NFL has a strong commissioner in Roger Goodell. Super PACs thrive because there is no commissioner of our political process, unless you think that Chief Justice John Roberts and the eight other Supremes are capable of limiting the excess in campaign. It’s a sad state of affairs when the NFL is more civilized than our political process.