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National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell moved to protect the U.S.’s most popular sport with an unprecedented suspension of Super Bowl- winning coach Sean Payton for a bounty program that paid players on the New Orleans Saints for injuring opponents.
The league also banned Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis for eight games and indefinitely barred former assistant Gregg Williams for the program. Under the bounty plan, about two dozen players, led by Williams, paid each other as much as $1,500 for targeting opponents such as Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks Kurt Warner and Brett Favre from 2009 to 2011, the NFL said. Payton and the Saints won the Super Bowl after the 2009 season.
The action, among the stiffest penalties ever imposed by the league on a team and its leadership and described by NFL spokesman Greg Aiello as unprecedented, came because the Saints’ behavior, which included misleading NFL investigators, threatened the league’s safety and integrity, Goodell said.
“Clearly, we were lied to,” Goodell said in an interview televised on the NFL Network. “I don’t think you can be too hard on people that put at risk our players’ health and safety.”
Goodell said in a league statement he wanted to send “a strong and lasting message” that the Saints’ conduct was unacceptable. The team also was fined $500,000 and stripped of second-round picks in 2012 and 2013. No players were immediately punished. Goodell said “that’s next up.”
“We offer our sincere apology and take full responsibility for these serious violations,” the Saints said in an e-mailed release. “It has always been the goal of the New Orleans Saints to create a model franchise and to impact our league in a positive manner. There is no place for bounties in our league, and we reiterate our pledge that this will never happen again.”
David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, said Goodell had to punish the Saints severely in order to maintain the confidence of the league’s business partners.
“He could do nothing short of drop the hammer,” Carter said in a telephone interview. “Whether you’re a broadcast partner, sponsor or season-ticket holder, to think that something like this might be going on in such a fashion is totally unacceptable.”
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.
Brian Billick, who won a Super Bowl as coach of the Baltimore Ravens, called the extent of the sanctions stunning.
“The commissioner is sending a clear message,” Billick, now an analyst with News Corp. (NWSA)’s Fox and the NFL Network, said in a telephone interview. “If you want to get rid of it, this is how you do it.”
Loomis, Payton and Williams all apologized for their roles in the program in statements after the league announced the results of its investigation on March 2. Williams, 53, occasionally contributed to the funds himself, the NFL said.
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. 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 Saints also made payments for interceptions or fumble recoveries in violation of that rule, the NFL said.
Williams, now a coach with the St. Louis Rams, said he misled investigators when first contacted by the league in 2010 and made no effort to stop the program, the NFL said. Assistant head coach Joe Vitt, who was also suspended for six games, said he “fabricated the truth” when questioned, denying the program existed.
Goodell called safety a critical issue for the league. He said he was disappointed that players would participate and said the league is still looking into sanctions against them.
“A combination of elements made this matter particularly egregious,” Goodell said in the league’s 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.”
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