NEW YORK — Roger Goodell sent a message to every coach and player in the NFL: safety first. The league commissioner stuck with his punishments for New Orleans’ pay-for-pain bounties Monday, rejecting Saints coach Sean Payton’s appeal of a seasonlong suspension.
An NFL investigation found that, under Payton’s watch, an assistant ran a program offering cash payouts for hits that knocked targeted opponents out of games or hurt them so badly they needed help getting to the sideline.
Next on Goodell’s agenda: discipline for players involved in the bounty program that began in 2009, the season the Saints won the Super Bowl.
The case represents perhaps the starkest example yet of the sea change the NFL has undergone since medical research and media reports on the long-term damage suffered by players through concussions began to gain attention.
As recently as October 2009, while testifying before Congress, Goodell did not acknowledge a link between head injuries on the field and brain diseases later in life. Hundreds of NFL retirees are suing the league for health problems they say began with their playing careers.
The league has taken a series of steps to better protect players in the past couple of years, and just last month expanded the definition of “defenseless players” who cannot be hit in the head or neck or by someone leading with a helmet.
While NFL veterans say off-the-books incentives have been around for years, and some current players say tough talk about hitting opponents where they are injured happens in locker rooms throughout the league, Goodell responded by handing out stern penalties.
In addition to upholding Payton’s suspension, which begins next Monday and runs through the Super Bowl in 2013, Goodell affirmed suspensions of eight games for Saints general manager Mickey Loomis and six games for assistant head coach Joe Vitt. He kept in place a $500,000 fine for the franchise and the loss of draft picks this year and next.
Loomis, who along with the team declined comment Monday, and Vitt will begin their suspensions after the preseason ends.
Former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who left the Saints in January to join the St. Louis Rams, ran the program and has been suspended indefinitely. He did not appeal.
Suspensions for players who participated in the bounties could be coming within days. The NFL has said as many as 27 players could be sanctioned.
Goodell set a precedent last season when he made Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh sit out two games after stomping on an opponent, and Steelers linebacker James Harrison one game for a brutal tackle that gave Browns quarterback Colt McCoy a concussion.
Goodell showed a bit of leniency Monday, saying in a statement that if Payton, Loomis and Vitt “embrace the opportunity and participate in a constructive way,” he would consider reducing their financial penalties. None of them has been fined, but each will lose significant amounts while not being paid their salaries. Payton, who twice apologized for his role in the bounties, could lose more than $6 million.
Goodell said he would consider modifying the forfeiture of the Saints’ 2013 second-round draft choice, perhaps to a lower round. But they still will receive a draft penalty next year and lose this year’s second-round pick.