Were Player Suspensions From Saints Alleged “Bounty Program” Deserved?

The NFL didn’t win popularity contests with this call. Certainly not with the players, who are expressing disbelief with the year-long banishment of Jonathan Vilma.

Many fans also view the punishment as too severe.

But were the penalties for the players the league found to be leaders in the New Orleans Saints “bounty program” over the top?


Fairness and Accountability

The NFL investigation found that the Saints’ defensive team operated a pay-for-performance/bounty program, primarily funded by players, during the 2009, 2010, and 2011 seasons. The league found that between 22 and 27 players were rewarded with bonuses for hard hits and injuring opposing players.

The league responded with what most observers viewed as harsh sanctions.

Saints head coach Sean Payton received a one-year suspension. Assistant coach Joe Vitt was given a 6-game suspension and GM Mickey Loomis an 8-game penalty.

Gregg Williams, the team’s defensive coordinator during the 3-year span, was handed an indefinite suspension that will last at least a season.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell cited a number of reasons for the punishments including: the leadership roles of the men involved, the failure of those involved to end the bounty program, and the denials made to investigators that the program even existed.

Commissioner Goodell said at the time: “We are all accountable and responsible for player health and safety and the integrity of the game. We will not tolerate conduct or a culture that undermines those priorities. No one is above the game or the rules that govern it. Respect for the game and the people who participate in it will not be compromised.”

That brings us to the players found to be involved.

Jonathan Vilma was suspended for the 2012 season. The league stated: “The investigation concluded that while a captain of the defensive unit Vilma assisted Coach Williams in establishing and funding the program. Multiple independent sources also confirmed that Vilma offered a specific bounty — $10,000 in cash – to any player who knocked Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner out of the 2009 Divisional playoff game and later pledged the same amount to anyone who knocked Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre out of the 2009 NFC Championship Game the following week.”

Former Saints defensive linemen Anthony Hargrove, now with the Packers, was given an 8-game suspension, Saints defensive end Will Smith was suspended for 4-games and former Saints LB-Scott Fujita, now with the Browns, was assessed a 3-game suspension.

Commissioner Goodell stated: “In assessing player discipline, I focused on players who were in leadership positions at the Saints; contributed a particularly large sum of money toward the program; specifically contributed to a bounty on an opposing player; demonstrated a clear intent to participate in a program that potentially injured opposing players; sought rewards for doing so; and/or obstructed the 2010 investigation.”

Given the penalties assessed to the coaches and staff involved, are the penalties for the players out of line?

You can argue that other players should have been punished for accepting money and being part of the bounty program, but targeting those most responsible seems to be a fair and proportional response by the league.

This is about accountability.

Commissioner Goodell put it this way: “It is the obligation of everyone, including the players on the field, to ensure that rules designed to promote player safety, fair play, and the integrity of the game are adhered to and effectively and consistently enforced. Respect for the men that play the game starts with the way players conduct themselves with each other on the field.”

The deliberate attempt to injure an opponent has no place in any sport. Such conduct impacts not only player safety, but also compromises the integrity of the sport.

Respect for an opponent is fundamental to every sport.

The teams, coaches and players all are responsible for what went on. And the argument that this has been going on for years is a weak one, especially today with the emphasis on player safety.

Players have to take responsibility for the integrity of the sport they play.

The Legal Ramifications

We also have to recognize the legal aspects here.

The NFL is being sued by former players who allege that the league knew that concussions were a problem years ago but did not act to better protect players from head injuries. So, while the NFL rules changes aimed at reducing the number of head injuries has been instituted in the interest of player safety, it also figures to have been in response to the charges that the league has been slow to react in the past.

But also remember this.

The Saints bounty program could result in criminal prosecutions for those involved. The NFL Players Association reportedly warned players that it could happen.

No sport wants to see the courts get involved in conduct that occurs during a game. The NFL’s strong actions may have the dual effect of stopping future bounty programs, while convincing prosecutors that the issue does not require legal intervention.

The Right Call

If you truly want to end a behavior, you need to change the culture.

You also have to raise the risk and lower the reward.The NFL has done that by sending a strong message that player bounties will not be tolerated.

The league also has reminded everyone that if you are caught lying to the league, you will face severe punishments.

Few NFL players publicly will applaud the league’s punishments and most fans probably view them as too severe, but Commissioner Goodell got this one right.

Going Forward

It’s understandable that the NFLPA wants to stand-up for its players in matters involving league punishment, but it will be interesting to see how far the union takes this case. Will it end with the player appeals to the Commissioner?

Player unions are put into a difficult position in matters involving fair competition and player safety. It is the balancing act between advocating for the individual vs. the group.

The MLBPA long fought efforts by Major League Baseball to institute random drug-testing. The union argued that it was a invasion of privacy and required players to prove their innocence, in the absence of any reasonable suspicion.

A valid point.

But, it’s also in the player’s overall best interest to be competing on an even playing field, and random drug-testing can help ensure that no player is gaining an unfair competitive advantage over another. Many players in baseball had favored random testing for that reason. Of course, eventually, the landscape changed and strong public sentiment in favor of testing led to the union agreeing to a drug-testing agreement.

In the case of the bounty program, the NFLPA should do all it can to discourage bounties that reward players for intentionally injuring other players.

That’s just common sense.

There is a line between hitting a player as hard as you can, and intentionally trying to injure that player and put him out of the game.

Many, if not most players, are likely to argue that there isn’t that much of a distinction.

So, here’s the question.

How does the union discourage “intent to injure” when the culture of football has long run counter to efforts to control the violence on the field?

And if the NFLPA argues against the punishments assessed the players in the Saints “bounty” case, how does that impact the union’s “player safety” argument against the NFL’s proposed 18-game schedule?

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