Keeping Score

Pay for Pain: Why the Bounty Scandal Looks Terrible for the NFL

For three years, the New Orleans Saints offered players cash if they injured another player, according to the NFL. So much for that feel-good Super Bowl tale.

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Chris Graythen / Getty Images

Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams of the New Orleans Saints talks with players on the field prior to Super Bowl XLIV against the Indianapolis Colts on February 7, 2010 at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida.

In the annals of sports scandals, what’s worse: fixing a game, or fixing to injure another player?

According to an NFL investigation, from 2009 to 2011 the New Orleans Saints created an unseemly bounty system that rewarded defensive players for injuring opponents. The program, administered by Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, financed by Saints players and strictly forbidden by the NFL, offered $1,000 for a hit that forced a player to be carted off to the sideline and $1,500 for one that knocked a player out of the game. According to the NFL, both Saints coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis were aware of the bounty system but did not stop it. Mike Ornstein, an agent who later served a prison term for scalping Super Bowl tickets, also allegedly kicked money into the pool, which grew as large as $50,000.

“I want to express my sincere regret and apology to the NFL, [Saints owner] Mr. [Tom] Benson and the New Orleans Saints fans for my participation in the pay-for-performance program while I was with the Saints,” Williams said in a statement. “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.”

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The Saints won the Super Bowl in 2009, which was seen as a feel-good tale that lifted post-Katrina New Orleans. The bounties certainly taint that championship now. According to SI.com, Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma allegedly offered his teammates $10,000 to knock Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre out of that year’s NFC championship game, which the Saints won in overtime. Favre stayed on the field that day but took a beating.

That such a system could exist within the violent culture of the NFL is not surprising. Some former players have said under-the-table rewards for hard hits have always been part of the game. The timing of the Saints case, however, is terrible. For the past few years, the NFL has preached player safety and taken serious steps to reduce the risk of injuries. The Saints seemed to make a mockery of that effort.

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So how does this scandal compare with those that have recently befallen other sports? You can argue it’s the most reprehensible. Former NBA referee Tim Donaghy bet on games he officiated. Donaghy’s actions were an assault on the integrity of the game — but not on another human being. Baseball players used steroids to attack a baseball, not another person. Here, the deal was straightforward: money for malicious intent.

Williams reportedly may have instituted similar systems during his time as head coach of the Buffalo Bills, from 2001 through 2003, and as defensive coordinator with the Washington Redskins, from 2004 to 2007. Targets of such violence could file lawsuits. According to a report, Williams will meet with NFL investigators again on Monday, March 5.

Expect severe punishment for Williams, who is now the defensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams, and the Saints. When it comes to bounties in sports, no penalty seems too strict.

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