NFL Bounties: Does The Punishment Fit The Crime?

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Sean Payton received an unprecedented season-long suspension for his role in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal. (AP)
Sean Payton received an unprecedented season-long suspension for his role in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal. (AP)

"I think the severity of the penalty, particularly to Sean Payton, took everybody by surprise, including Sean Payton," said New Orleans Times-Picayune sports columnist and Saints beat writer Jeff Duncan. "I think everybody thought it would be multiple games. But this is unprecedented. Never in the history of the league has a coach been suspended for a full year for something like this."

In fact no NFL head coach has ever been suspended for any reason, even for so much as a day. Duncan is referring to the sentences NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell pronounced on Wednesday. Saints Head Coach Sean Payton was suspended from April 1st though the end of next season without pay, and could lose up to $7 million in salary. Among the others penalized were Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis, suspended for eight games without pay, and former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, suspended indefinitely. Williams had signed on to be the Rams' defensive coordinator starting next season. Assistant Coach Joe Vitt was suspended for six games and fined $100,000, and Commissioner Goodell imposed a $500,000 fine on the team and stripped the Saints of two second round draft picks. The league has said that player penalties may be forthcoming.

From 2008 through 2010, Williams presided over a system that paid so-called "bounties" to New Orleans players who knocked opposing players from the game. Payton and Loomis knew of the system and failed to end it. All three of them apparently tried to cover up their violation of various league rules when Goodell began an investigation in 2010. The commissioner was asked how he would respond to people who felt the penalties were excessive.

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"I don't think you can be too hard on people who put at risk our players' health and safety. This is a critical issue going forward, and it has been in our past," he said.

That concern notwithstanding, Jeff Duncan, among others, feels that Williams, Payton, and Loomis might not have been so severely sanctioned if they'd all acknowledged two years ago that the Saints were breaking the rules.

It wasn’t just the crime; it was also the cover-up," he said. "We've talked about it at length here. It was similar to Watergate. And actually someone in the NFL office compared the way the Saints handled this to the Nixon White House. I thought that was interesting, and I thought that was also pretty damning."

On Friday, Sean Payton issued an apology on the Saints' website, in which he expressed regret and took full responsibility for what went on under his watch. An unscientific survey of Saints fans suggests, not surprisingly, that they think Commissioner Goodell went too far. Iris Schnoebelen is the owner and chef at Iris, a New Orleans restaurant.

"It seems a little harsh to me," he said. "Bill Belichick, when he got caught for spying, didn't get suspended one, single day, and then they suspend Sean Payton a whole year. So it seems a little harsh. I know they want to set an example. But I think all it really does is punish the fans, which we've done nothing wrong."

While Mr. Schnoebelen felt that the retribution was too harsh, both Mike Wise of the Washington Post and Bill Dwyre of the Los Angeles Times disagreed.

"They were appropriate," Dwyre told Bill Littlefield.  "It doesn't surprise me that a fan of the Saints would say the penalties were too harsh."

"There's a big difference between a performance incentive and a malicious intent to injure--two hugely different things," Wise agreed.  He went on to say that the "snitches get stitches" response heard among several players is even more troublesome.

"There are guys in this league who are more upset by the fact that people have told on other players for doing something in society that would be considered criminal."

When asked if this mentality suggested that other bounty-hunting systems existed outside of New Orleans, Dwyre said, "It does to me, and the only difference here is this was a formal, organized manner. It was documented, it was something that was provable."

Wise added that reporting by the Washington Post suggested a widespread problem.  "We've got up to 10 players who have said there was a bounty system in Washington while Gregg Williams was the defensive coordinator.  Something was awry in Washington," Wise said. "Some of the players in Buffalo have told the Buffalo News the same."

This segment aired on March 24, 2012.


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