The National Football League suspended Super Bowl-winning coach Sean Payton for one year, taking unprecedented action after finding the New Orleans Saints ran a bounty program that paid players 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, in which 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.
Today’s action was among the stiffest penalties ever imposed by the league on a team and its leadership. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in an e-mail that the action on Payton and Loomis was “unprecedented” against a coach and general manager.
“A combination of elements made this matter particularly unusual and egregious,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a 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.”
The Saints also were fined $500,000 and stripped of second-round draft picks in 2012 and 2013. No players were immediately punished. The NFL said that part of the case remained under review. Payton won’t be paid his 2012 salary, which the Times-Picayune newspaper said was around $6 million.
“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.”
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.’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.”
The loss of Payton and other penalties will have “a minimal effect” on the Saints’ Super Bowl chances, according to Andrew Patterson, an oddsmaker for Las Vegas Sports Consultants, which helps sports books set betting lines. He said New Orleans was 8-1 before the penalties to win the title and probably will move to 12-1, odds that may grow if players are punished. This season’s Super Bowl is set for the Saints’ home field, the Superdome, in February 2013.
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.
“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.
Williams acknowledged to the NFL that he designed and implemented the program with the help of some defensive players, including Jonathan Vilma, the defensive captain, who offered $10,000 to any player who knocked Favre out of the National Football Conference championship game in 2010.
The league’s ruling leaves little option for legal recourse for Payton or Williams, according to Gabe Feldman, director of the Sports Law Program at Tulane University in New Orleans. Any formal appeal would go right back to the commissioner under the league’s collective bargaining agreement, Feldman said in a telephone interview.
“To get an outside review, you have to really make an argument that the commissioner exceeded the scope of his authority and acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner,” he said. “That’s a tough argument to make, because this is a really a contract issue. You agreed to give the commissioners these powers.”
Within minutes of today’s announcement, the Fleurty Girl boutique on Magazine Street in New Orleans was selling T-shirts that read, “Free Payton.”
The Saints’ bounty 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.
The Saints ranked among the NFL’s top-five teams in fouls for unnecessary roughness penalties in 2009 and 2011, and for illegal hits on the quarterback all three seasons, the league said. Saints players totaled $45,000 in fines for fouls committed in the divisional round and conference championship of the 2010 playoffs.
Williams now says 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.
Payton said this year he wasn’t aware of the program, despite receiving an e-mail prior to the Saints’ opening game in 2011 that offered a $5,000 contribution for a bounty on Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the league said. Payton said he never asked his defensive coaches if they were running a bounty program and never ordered them to stop, even after Loomis told him the about the NFL’s investigation early in 2010.
Loomis didn’t do enough to determine if the program existed or to end it, making “only cursory inquiries” after being ordered to do so by team owner Tom Benson in January 2012.
There’s no evidence that Benson had prior knowledge of the bounties and ownership “made clear that it disapproved of the program, gave prompt and clear direction that it stop, and gave full and immediate cooperation to league investigators,” 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.”
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. Owners of all 32 clubs were instructed today in a memo from the league to ensure that no similar programs exist within their teams, and to certify the fact in writing to Goodell by the end of the month.
“I don’t think you can be too hard on people that put at risk our players’ health and safety,” Goodell told NFL Network. “That is a critical issue for us going forward and has been in our past. We will always protect that. We will always make the decision for the game long term and our players.
Present and former players and coaches have said since the NFL announcement of its investigation 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 its defensive coordinator 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.
David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School, 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.”