The NFL imposed some of the most severe penalties in pro football history Wednesday when Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended three New Orleans Saints coaches and the team’s general manager for operating and tolerating a bounty system that paid players for hits that injured opponents.
Head coach Sean Payton, assistant coach Joe Vitt, former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and general manager Mickey Loomis were all punished by the league.
The NFL investigation of the Saints found that they had a bounty program, funded primarily by players, over the past three seasons. The league concluded that Williams administered the program and occasionally contributed money to it, and cited Payton and Loomis for failing to do more to halt the program.
The furor over the Saints’ bounties comes at a time when the league has focused on player safety by tightening its enforcement of rules that govern legal blows and, in particular, trying to reduce player concussions.
But that effort and the findings in the Saints bounty investigation, announced March 2, have run hard into what many players consider their onfield code, one that allows attempts to take stars and others off the field with crushing, but legal, blows.
Goodell made clear that paying players to injure opponents crossed the line.
“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. . . . Programs of this kind have no place in our game and we are determined that bounties will no longer be a part of the NFL.”
The investigation of players most heavily involved in the scheme is continuing. Goodell has asked DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, for his recommendations on discipline of players, according to a person close to the situation.
The penalties are among the harshest in the sport’s history. Then-commissioner Pete Rozelle suspended Green Bay Packers running back Paul Hornung and Detroit Lions defensive lineman Alex Karras for the 1963 season for gambling.
“I am speechless,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees wrote on Twitter. “Sean Payton is a great man, coach, and mentor. The best there is. I need to hear an explanation for this punishment.”
Williams’ case will be reviewed after the 2012 season, the league announced.
“A combination of elements made this matter particularly unusual and egregious,” Goodell said in the written statement. “When there is targeting of players for injury and cash rewards over a three-year period, the involvement of the coaching staff, and three years of denials and willful disrespect of the rules, a strong and lasting message must be sent that such conduct is totally unacceptable and has no place in the game.”