For three years, the New Orleans Saints secretly doled out cash rewards to players for hits on opponents — $1,500 for knocking someone out of the game, $1,000 for getting a player carted off the field.
On Wednesday, the league landed its own knockout blow, suspending the Saints' coach without pay for a year and meting out suspensions to their general manager and two other coaches.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, in going further than any previous commissioner, sent a clear message to professional football: The league is getting more violent and bounties won't be tolerated.
In addition to suspending Saints Coach Sean Payton for a year without pay, Goodell handed an indefinite suspension to former New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, the architect of the pay-for-performance program who now works for the St. Louis Rams. Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis will be out for eight games and linebackers coach Joe Vitt for six. New Orleans also lost second-round picks in the next two drafts and was fined $500,000.
The penalties are the most severe in the modern history of the NFL.
The sanctions were the most dramatic indication in years that the NFL is determined to address player-safety issues and the lifelong impact of concussions, as well as the legal liabilities of looking the other way.
"You know that it won't happen again; it won't happen with the Saints, it won't happen with anyone," said Hall of Fame coach John Madden, who co-chairs the league's safety panel with former player Ronnie Lott. "It's a violent game, it's a tough game. Just playing it normally, you're going to have injuries. The game has plenty of natural violence. You don't need to manufacture any more."
More suspensions are likely. Discipline for individual players is under review by the NFL Players Assn., and will be addressed by Goodell "at a later date," according to the league.
"While all club personnel are expected to play to win," Goodell said, "they must not let the quest for victory so cloud their judgment that they willingly and willfully target their opponents and engage in unsafe and prohibited conduct intended to injure players."
The Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton, the NFL's 2011 offensive rookie of the year and among the star quarterbacks specifically targeted by Saints defenders, recently told The Times he was surprised by the findings of the bounty investigation.
"There's a golden rule in this league, and the golden rule is you've just got to respect everybody's career," Newton said. "For any team, any player, any person to have that type of attitude going out on the field with the intentions of being a detriment to another person's career ... I just can't understand that."
Amplifying the penalties was the fact the Saints lied in what the league called "a deliberate effort to conceal the program's existence from league investigators," and had "a clear determination to maintain the program."
The league said that Payton, the 2006 NFL coach of the year, encouraged false denials by instructing assistants to "make sure our ducks are in a row."
Among the revelations in the three-year investigation of the Saints by the NFL, a span that included their Super Bowl victory in the 2009 season, was that cash bounties were placed on four opposing quarterbacks: Minnesota's Brett Favre, Carolina's Newton, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers and Arizona's Kurt Warner.
Before the 2009 NFC championship game against Minnesota, the league determined, Saints linebacker and team captain Jonathan Vilma offered $10,000 to any player who knocked out Favre. He was repeatedly pounded in that game, including some controversial hits.
Some legal experts believe the Saints are fortunate if they are punished only by the NFL, pointing out that paying one player to intentionally injure another crosses more than the boundaries of fair play.
"Being on the field doesn't immunize you and place you in some kind of sanctuary, vis a vis the normal rules of criminal conduct," Stanford law professor William B. Gould IV said. "If I pay someone to go out and hurt you, that's against the law. These guys have paid people to go out and deliberately hurt people.
"It unfortunately creates a model for young people to emulate. I think [the Saints involved] are fortunate to escape criminal sanctions."