The National Football League suspended the New Orleans Saints’ Super Bowl-winning coach Sean Payton for one year, banned General Manager Mickey Loomis for eight games and indefinitely barred former assistant coach Gregg Williams for running a bounty program that paid players for injuring opponents.
No players were immediately punished by the league, which said in an e-mailed statement that the case remained under review. The NFL said on March 2 that about two dozen Saints players, led by Williams, paid each other as much as $1,500 for injuring opponents. It said the bounty plan targeted players including Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks Brett Favre and Kurt Warner from 2009 through 2011.
Today’s action was among the stiffest penalties ever imposed by the league on a team and its leadership.
“A combination of elements made this matter particularly unusual and egregious,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in the 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.”
Loomis, Payton and Williams all apologized for their roles in the program in statements after the league announced the results of its investigation. Williams, 53, occasionally contributed to the funds himself, the NFL said.
“It was a terrible mistake, and we knew it was wrong when we were doing it,” Williams, now defensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams, said in an e-mailed statement this month. “Instead of getting caught up in it, I should have stopped it. I take full responsibility for my role.”
Players were paid $1,500 for a “knockout” in which an opposing player was unable to return to the game, and $1,000 for a “cart-off” in which opponents were carried off the field, according to the NFL investigation. Payments doubled or tripled during the playoffs.
Such a pool violates an NFL rule prohibiting non-contract bonuses. Players can’t receive added pay for performance against particular teams or opponents, or for on-field misconduct such as injuring opponents or personal fouls.
The NFL has increasingly handed out fines and suspensions for illegal hits, while changing rules to protect players over the past three seasons. Pittsburgh Steelers Pro Bowl linebacker James Harrison was suspended for one game last year for his fifth illegal hit on a quarterback over that span.
That effort comes as the NFL is being sued by former players who say it ignored the dangers posed by head injuries.
“There is no place in the NFL for deliberately seeking to injure another player, let alone offering a reward for doing so,” Goodell said in the league statement today.
Payton knew about the pool, even though he wasn’t a direct participant in funding or administering it, the NFL said. He “did not make any detailed inquiry or otherwise seek to learn the facts, and failed to stop the bounty program.”
Saints Owner Tom Benson learned of the program from investigators, who began looking into the matter in early 2010 after allegations the Saints had targeted Favre and Warner. Benson told Loomis to end it immediately, and there’s no evidence Loomis made any effort to do that, the NFL said.
Four days after the NFL announced its investigation, Loomis and Payton apologized for the bounty program, and said Benson had “nothing to do” with it.
“We acknowledge that the violations disclosed by the NFL during their investigation of our club happened under our watch,” the two men said in a statement. “We take full responsibility.”
Present and former players and coaches have said since the NFL announcement that bounties are a part of life in the league. Four former members of the Washington Redskins told the Washington Post that team had a similar program when Williams worked as defensive coordinator there between 2004 and 2007.
Previous hefty penalties in the NFL focused on off-field actions.
The NFL fined the New England Patriots and coach Bill Belichick a combined $750,000 in 2008 and took away a first- round draft choice for videotaping opposing teams’ signals in violation of league rules, in a case that became known as “Spygate.”
Running back Paul Hornung and defensive lineman Alex Karras were suspended indefinitely in 1963 for betting on NFL games and associating with undesirable people. Both were reinstated the following year.
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