March 22, 2012
The New Orleans Saints are on the precipice of receiving one of the biggest disciplinary decisions and largest fines that have ever been sanctioned on a team for setting bounties on opposing players. Under defensive coordinator, Greg Williams, the Saints pooled their money into sums upward of $50,000 to award the teammate that knocked targeted opposing players out of games. Williams also awarded the Saints players with the biggest hits or the most interceptions in a game with monetary bonuses to motivate them to play harder. In fact, Jonathon Vilma, New Orlean’s starting middle linebacker during their Super Bowl season offered an impromptu $10,000 to any teammate that could knock Brett Favre, then the quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings out of their conference championship game. The casual fan was appalled by the knowledge that bounties were being paid for excessive violence, and the commissioner, Roger Goodell, overreacted as usual. Currently, there are 27 players and personnel that played for the Saints in 2009 that are subject to disciplinary action according to league sources. And, Goodell and the National Football League are contemplating what disciplinary actions to take against them.
This case is unlike past cases of player misconduct, because the NFL actually can enforce punishment of these bounties without much scrutiny and legal retribution because of a rule prohibiting “non-contract bonuses.”
“No bonus or award may directly or indirectly be offered, promised, announced, or paid to a player for his or his team’s performance against a particular team or opposing player or a particular group thereof. No bonuses or awards may be offered or paid for on field misconduct (for example, personal fouls to or injuries inflicted on opposing players).”
In this instance, Goodell is not extending his power as the league’s commissioner and stretching the range of his authority as he did when handling off-field player misconduct. He is well within the scope of his authority by enforcing the non-contract bonuses rule. However, most of the league is expecting harsher penalties and fines than even the New England Patriots received following “Spygate.”* Goodell has been particularly unforgiving on player misconduct and this incident stems from management. In the aforementioned conference championship game against the Minnesota Vikings, Favre took several hits that were questionable when filtered through the viewpoint of players trying to win the bounty. There were several late hits and the New Orleans Saints defense seemed to hit him on every play.
“I’m not pissed. It’s football. I don’t think anything less of those guys. I would have loved to play with Vilma. Hell of a player. I’ve got a lot of respect for Gregg Williams. He’s a great coach. I’m not going to make a big deal about it…Now, in that game there were some plays that, I don’t want to say were odd, but I’d throw the ball and whack, on every play. Hand it off, whack. Over and over. Some were so blatant. I hand the ball to Percy Harvin early and got drilled right in the chin. They flagged that one at least. I’ve always been friends with Darren Sharper, and he came in a couple times and popped me hard. I remember saying, ‘What THE hell you doing, Sharp?’ I felt there should have been more calls against the Saints. I thought some of their guys should have been fined more.”
In the playoffs, every team hits harder and each player plays the game with more fervor. There is more at stake in those games. When viewing the same game tape, the Minnesota Vikings delivered quite a few late hits that went uncalled too. The playoffs are about intimidation and the team that hits the hardest almost always wins the game. Both teams played the game accordingly.
The role of bounties in how physical that playoff game was played has been grossly exaggerated. None of the plays were illegal. They were penalized in the conference game when they acted outside of the rules set forth by the NFL, and the referees deemed that only one personal foul was committed in that game. The Saints did not roll into the legs of players or aim at the quarterback’s head or knees. They did not grab face masks or get into fist fights with the Minnesota Vikings. They simply brought everything that they had on each play rather than reserving energy and losing ferocity. That was the purpose of the bounty. It was a way for Greg Williams to keep his players engaged and to get the most out of his players on every play. It was motivation for his players and it worked. Greg Williams should not be applauded for breaking the rules in the National Football League, but he should not be crucified either. And, though the Saints are the only team that has been found guilty of raising bounties, they are surely not the only team to do it. Marcellus Wiley, a former player in the NFL said that bounties are common in the league. Something as simple as one player telling another that he will give fifty bucks if the player can get another big hit after a big play is a breach of the bounty rule. That happens all the time. Numerous players from nearly half of the NFL teams have said that their teams had bounties under the promise of anonymity. The problem is not bounties, it is the perception that people have about bounties.
Roger Goodell has an opportunity to make the right decision concerning the Saint’s infractions. New Orleans did break the independent contract rule, so they should be punished in accordance of NFL disciplinary rules. However, no precedent should be set to discipline them. The Saint’s bounties were in line with the spirit of football. Whereas basketball is a contact sport, football is a collision sport. On every play, several players collide at full speed and therefore on each play several athletes risk the possibility of being hurt. The Saints defensive coordinator was only using inventive ways to motivate his football players. The attention that the National Football League has turned towards bounties is not due to a deep seated desire to clean up the game, but is solely based in the emergence of new information about concussions and the prevalence of new lawsuits from former players with concussive injuries during their careers. This judgment may not actually be about the mistakes that the Saints made, but instead about the ramifications that their actions could have in the future.
*Goodell recently suspended Head Coach Sean Payton for the entire season though he claimed that he had no knowledge of the bounties.