National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell upheld the one-year suspension he gave New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton for trying to cover up a bounty program that paid players bonuses for injuring their opponents.
Payton, 48, appealed the suspension, set to begin on April 16, last week. Goodell handed down the decision -- the stiffest punishment ever imposed on an NFL team and its leadership -- on March 21 after he said Payton lied to the NFL about the program. The commissioner also upheld a $500,000 fine on the Saints, the loss of two draft picks, a half-season suspension for General Manager Mickey Loomis and a six-game ban for assistant Joe Vitt.
“The club and the individuals will be expected to cooperate in any further proceedings and to assist in the development and implementation of programs to instruct players and coaches at all levels on the principles of player safety, fair play and sportsmanship,” the NFL said in a news release. “If they embrace the opportunity to participate in a constructive way, Commissioner Goodell said he would consider mitigating the financial penalties on the individuals.”
The league said it discovered a program in which Saints players were paid bonuses from 2009 through 2011 for various on-field accomplishments, including forced turnovers and injuring opponents. All such payments violate NFL rules on non-contract bonuses.
Players funded a bounty pool that 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. The Saints won the Super Bowl after the 2009 season.
The league originally investigated the matter two years ago, but couldn’t find sufficient proof that a bounty program existed. In its statement on the punishments, the NFL said that Payton denied the program existed and then ignored instructions from the league to make sure it wouldn’t occur in the future.
Filmmaker Sean Pamphilon released an audio recording of former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams encouraging his players to injure the San Francisco 49ers in a profanity laced speech prior to a playoff game last season. Williams, now defensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams, was suspended indefinitely. The audio was released the same day Payton, Loomis and Vitt were appealing their penalties before Goodell in New York.
“A combination of elements made this matter particularly unusual and egregious,” Goodell said in a statement at the time of the original ruling. “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.”
Payton will be barred without pay for the entire 2012 season. He is due to make about $6 million this season, according to the Times-Picayune newspaper of New Orleans.
The team talked to Bill Parcells, who won two Super Bowls with the New York Giants, about coaching the Saints during Payton’s suspension. Parcells said he would consider taking the job if it were offered, ESPN reported. Payton previously told reporters that he and Parcells had discussions, which he described as those between an adviser and colleague, and that it was possible the 70-year-old former coach would fill the Saints’ vacancy on an interim basis.
Talks With Union
The league is also in discussions with NFL Players’ Association representatives about what penalties will be enforced on the players who took part in the bounty program. The union has asked the NFL to share information from an investigation that showed 22 to 27 defensive players were part of the bounty pool. Goodell said the league has given the union two confidential reports on their investigation, and today’s statement didn’t mention when player penalties might be imposed.
Goodell’s ruling leaves little option for legal recourse for Payton, according to Gabe Feldman, director of the Sports Law Program at Tulane University in New Orleans, because it is an NFL matter.
“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 after the suspension was handed down. “That’s a tough argument to make, because this is a really a contract issue. You agreed to give the commissioners these powers.”
The NFL said Goodell will review the status of Payton, Loomis and Vitt at the conclusion of their suspensions to determine their eligibility for reinstatement.