Early in Martin Scorsese's classic 1990 movie Goodfellas, mobster Jimmy Conway sits down young Henry Hill to teach him an important life lesson. Hill has just survived the first of several court cases he will face during his long career in the business of crime, and Conway — played by Robert DeNiro — is proud of his teenage disciple. As he slips a wad of cash into Hill's pocket — which Conway calls a "graduation present" for completing that part of a mafia education — he offers some words of wisdom that will stay with Hill, played by Ray Liotta, forever.
"I'm not mad, I'm proud of you," Conway says. "You took your first pinch like a man and you learn two great things in your life: Never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut."
As strange as it sounds, being on an NFL roster is similar in many ways to being in organized crime. It is a closed community, one that admits only select members, and those inside the community walls live a life that few can imagine. The life is rough and extravagant, all at the same time, and the attention received by those involved often can be too much to handle. There are tremendous ups and brutal downs in both careers, and the life expectancy of those involved in both fields is noticeably shorter than the national average.
The similarities continue when examining Conway's words in that early scene of the film. Like the mob, loyalty and tight lips are requirements for those in that NFL community. Players are never supposed to throw teammates or coaches under the bus, blame others for their failures or disclose any information that is to remain confidential. What is said in players-only meetings is expected to remain with players only, although unlike the mob, there rarely are worries about somebody wearing a wire inside the closed doors of the locker room.
However, in the case of the Saints and their scandal with coaches and players placing bounties on opposing players that offered rewards for big hits and injuries, clearly there was a breach of that code. People who played or worked for the Saints between 2009-11 informed somebody in league management about what was going on. They detailed the system that defensive coordinator Gregg Williams had in place to reward players for "inflicting injuries on opposing players that would result in them being removed from a game," according to the league. This knowledge that was meant to be private became very public last Friday when the league announced its findings from an investigation that began in 2010.
Whoever these people are — the league states their investigation was "corroborated by multiple independent sources" — did the right thing. Williams' bounty ring was dangerous and senseless, and the fact that the coaches participated by offering up money is worthy of a long suspension and severe fines. Trying to intimidate and even physically hurt opponents is one thing; trying to put them on a stretcher and rewarding that behavior with thousands of dollars provided by the organization is another. The Saints should lose several draft picks and any players that are still on the roster that participated in the bounty program should be suspended for a portion of the 2012 season. Williams, now with the Rams, should face an even longer time away from the game.
Yet, by doing the right thing, the people who came forward to the league also did the wrong thing. They violated the trust of those in the locker room around them, a clear breach of the code they unknowingly agreed to when they accepted a job in professional football. As Steelers S Ryan Clark tweeted, "Whoever is snitching on the Saints D should be ashamed of themselves. No one was talking about the "bounty" when they got paid." After receiving complaints from his followers about the message he was sending, Clark added, "I am not saying that "bounties" are ethical or right but I am saying if you participate don't go back & tell on the people u did it with!" He is exactly right. If the people who turned in Williams and Co. knew of the bounty program and did nothing about it, they are as guilty as the players and coaches involved.
At the end of Goodfellas, nearly 25 years after his first court case, Hill is arrested again. This time it's by the FBI, as the mobster is at the center of an interstate drug trade that's worth millions of dollars. The feds give him two choices: go to jail for a long time or do what he was told by Conway all those years before never to do — turn in his partners. Hill, takes the latter option, testifying in court against Conway and the other mob bosses he had worked hand in hand with for decades. They were all sent to jail and Hill was sent to Nebraska in the Witness Protection Program.
The snitches in the Saints' case won't be so lucky. The NFL doesn't provide witness protection. It might take a while, but at some point, the information on who came forward will become public. These people did the right thing, and the league community will be behind them. But there will be those who have a problem with their actions, and rightfully so. They betrayed the trust of the locker room and subjected their former teammates and colleagues to punishments.
Whoever they are, they had better hope there's no bounty on finding them.
Follow Eli Kaberon on Twitter