Sean the Bounty Hunter Payton (Getty Images)
“Let me be clear. There is no place in the NFL for deliberately seeking to injure another player, let alone offering a reward for doing so. Any form of bounty is incompatible with our commitment to create a culture of sportsmanship, fairness, and safety.” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell
Today National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell hammered the New Orleans Saints for conducting a bounty hunting operation from during the 2009, 2010 and 2011 seasons. Saints Head Coach Sean Payton was suspended for a year, former Saints and now St Louis Rams Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams indefinitely and Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis for half of the 2012 season. A $500,000 fine was also leveled against the Saints who lost two draft picks. Player suspensions have not yet been announced by the league pending the review of the findings by the NFL Players Association. It is expected that a number of Saints defensive stars may get suspended and fined.
The fact that the Saints were engaged in this was bad enough. However after reports surfaced following the 2009 season the team was warned and told the league that it had stopped the practice after Saints owner instructed Loomis to stop the practice. Well Loomis, Payton and Williams were stupid enough to lie to the NFL, make their owner look stupid and have been quite justifiably punished for their actions.
Football is a game of speed and violence. It is that fact that makes it popular with fans. Football at any level is not a game for the meek of heart and by nature is a game of violent hits. The NFL and for that matter all football leagues have rules to mitigate some of the violence to lessen the chance of severe injuries to players but fundamentally it is a game of somewhat regulated gratuitous violence. Those that play the game understand this and to try to take all violence out of the game as it is the restrictions and penalties for hits that go beyond the normal expectation of the sport are already strong.
However the problem was not the violence that it inherent in the game it was the the fact that the team paid bounties to defensive players to intentionally and with deliberate forethought injure opposing players. If anyone in the non-sporting world outside the NFL paid employees to injure or harm opponents in business, academia or anywhere else they would not only lose their job they would probably be charged with a crime.
Sports’ Illustrated’s Peter King discussed the 2009 NFC Championship Game detailed some of the transgressions:
“On Saturday nights during the 2009 NFL season, Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, the lightning-rod leader of a feisty unit, would stand in front of his men holding white envelopes filled with cash—bonuses for their performances the previous week. As Williams called up player after player, handing them envelopes with amounts ranging from $100 for a special teams tackle inside the opponents’ 20-yard line to $1,500 for knocking a foe out of the game, a chant would rise up from the fired-up defenders:
“Give it back! Give it back! Give it back!”
Many players would do just that, to beef up the pot and make the stakes bigger as the season went on. The NFL alleges that by the time New Orleans reached the NFC Championship Game against the Vikings on Jan. 24, 2010, the stakes had risen to the point that middle linebacker and defensive captain Jonathan Vilma personally offered a $10,000 bounty to any player who knocked Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre out of the game. (SI’s attempts to reach Vilma were unsuccessful.)
Over four quarters that Sunday at the Superdome, Favre was hit repeatedly and hard. The league later fined Saints defensive linemen Bobby McCray and Anthony Hargrove a total of $25,000 for three separate improper hits, and NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira said the Saints should have been flagged for a brutal high-low mashing by McCray and defensive lineman Remi Ayodele in the third quarter. Favre suffered a badly sprained left ankle on that play and had to be helped off the field. On the New Orleans sideline, Hargrove excitedly slapped hands with teammates, saying, “Favre is out of the game! Favre is done! Favre is done!”
An on-field microphone directed toward the sideline caught an unidentified defender saying, “Pay me my money!”
In a game where players are injured on clean plays sometimes ending their careers, where many active and retired players are suffering from Traumatic Brain Injury, concussion syndrome and where it is not uncommon for players with head injuries to develop forms of early onset dementia for a team to actively solicit its players to injure opponents is despicable. Sean Payton may be a great coach as far as the game is concerned but neither he nor Gregg Williams should be allowed on the sidelines again.
For players to go after opponents hard in the course of a game is not the issue but to intentionally attempt to injure an opponent and to be paid a bounty to do it is beyond the lines. The decision by Roger Goodell and the league is the right one and it is just. Payton, Williams and Loomis used a bounty system to injure opposing players and lied about it to the league.
That may seem to be a harsh assessment on my part but it is fitting. The league will have to see just how many players were deliberately injured by the Saints during the years in question and undoubtably some of the affected players will file legal action against the Saints for their injuries. Those that think only of Sean Payton losing his 7.5 million dollar salary miss the point. The practices that he condoned and his subordinates executed cost injured players pain, suffering and money, especially those that were not able to fully recover from them. I think that Payton is lucky that no one has filed criminal charges against him. Even Police Officers and the Military operate under law and can’t do this kind of thing. As for the rest of us if we paid employees to intentional harm others to further our business or give our company or organization an edge we would go to jail.