Today the NFL finally came down on the New Orleans Saints for their involvement in a bounty program over the past 3 seasons. Weeks ago the NFL’s investigation and findings were announced to the public that money, ranging from thousands to tens-of-thousands, was awarded to Saints defensive players for hits resulting in an opposing player having to exit the game. When first approached about these allegations years ago, Saints GM Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton completely denied the suspicions. Now that the same notions have been confirmed, the NFL has suspended Loomis for eight games and Payton for the entire 2012 season. Former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has been suspended indefinitely. His eligibility to coach again will be reviewed at season’s end.
The bounty program isn’t just some conspiracy. Nobody made it up. Williams acknowledged that it happened in his apology statement:
“I want to express my sincere regret and apology to the NFL, Mr. (Tom)Benson (Saints owner), and the New Orleans Saints fans for my participation in the ‘pay for performance’ program while I was with the Saints. It was a terrible mistake, and we knew it was wrong while we were doing it. Instead of getting caught up in it, I should have stopped it. I take full responsibility for my role. I am truly sorry. I have learned a hard lesson and I guarantee that I will never participate in or allow this kind of activity to happen again.”
When Williams says “we” it’s not clear if he is referring to Loomis and Payton, but the NFL did find evidence that they knowingly allowed the program to continue when they were asked to stop it. The Saints as an organization were also fined $500,000 and must surrender two 2nd round draft picks (one in 2012, another in 2013). NFL is still deciding on the punishment of the 27 players who were heavily involved in the program.
Some players across the league, active and retired, have denied knowing of any bounty program. Many have acted like this isn’t news and happens all over the NFL. And some, like former Washington Redskin and National Football Post writer Matt Bowen, have openly described the firsthand experience playing under Williams. “When you lined up against us, you knew we were coming after you. It was our gig, our plan, our way to motivate, to extra-motivate,” said Bowen in his piece for the Chicago Tribune. "If that meant playing through the whistle or going low on a tackle, I did it.” Former Chicago Bear and Redskin Phillip Daniels also acknowledged that the bounty program was in place in Washington under Williams as defensive coordinator.
Demanding an explanation for the punishment to his headcoach is Saints quarterback Drew Brees. After the penalties were made public, Brees took to twitter saying, “I am speechless. Sean Payton is a great man, coach, and mentor. The best there is. I need to hear an explanation for this punishment.” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell doesn’t owe anyone an explanation, especially Brees, in this situation. The bounty program may have happened all over the league, but the Saints were the team to get caught. Not only did they get caught, the general manager and head coach lied about their involvement and awareness to it even taking place.
The timing of this situation partially supported how harsh the league’s ruling had to be. Upon the initial public announcement regarding the NFL’s findings of the Saints’ bounty program, Goodell made clear "the bounty rule promotes two key elements of NFL football: player safety and competitive integrity." During the NFL lockout, player safety was a serious priority for the new collective bargaining agreement. Some of the new deal’s player safety highlights include:
- Limiting on-field practice time and contact
- Limiting full-contact practices in the preseason and regular season.
- Increasing number of days off for players.
- Opportunity for current players to remain in the player medical plan for life.
- An enhanced injury protection benefit of up to $1 million of a player’s salary for the contract year after his injury and up to $500,000 in the second year after his injury.
- $50 million per year joint fund for medical research, healthcare programs and NFL Charities, including NFLPA-related charities.
The NFL has also been under fire for the tragic effects of concussions to retired players. Multiple cases have resulted in lawsuits toward the league for not doing a better job of protecting the players. Participating in the bounty program seems absolutely hypocritical and damning to the players’ argument for safety. It’s hard for someone like me to believe in the “unity” the NFLPA was trying to promote when the players held their index fingers in the air and the phony holding of hands.
The players wanted an emphasis on player safety. Roger Goodell’s punishment on Loomis, Payton, Williams and the Saints organization is a direct outcome for it. It’s understandable that football is a contact sport. Players suit up knowing that they are going to get hit or that they have to inflict force into someone in order to win. However when football is someone’s livelihood, taking extra pay on top of your multimillion dollar contract to potentially end that guy’s career seems beyond the sport’s integrity and that mutual understanding. Is the punishment comparable to SMU’s “Death Penalty”? Maybe, but it will certainly make teams think twice about continuing or participating in their own bounty program.
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