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Sat, Dec. 07

NFL bounties should not be tolerated

The New Orleans Saints have created the worst kind of headache for the NFL at the worst possible time.

Football has been known as a physical sport since the game was first invented. Defensive players are taught to hit opposing players hard in an effort to prevent the offense from gaining yards, scoring points, and to wear down their opponents. Some teams make no bones about trying to intimidate the opposition. But the Saints have taken that concept to an unacceptable extreme.

A number of Saints players and officials have admitted to a bounty program that rewarded players for intentionally injuring their opponents and knocking them out of the game. The timing of the disclosure has created a public relations nightmare for the NFL, coming as it does when an estimated three hundred former players are suing the league for ignoring, if not encouraging, injuries that have left them with brain damage that will lead to dementia, affect their quality of life, and reduce the number of years they live on earth.

At the center of the Saints' pay-for-injury scheme is former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who currently holds the same position with the St. Louis Rams. Williams was also the head coach of the Buffalo Bills and a former defensive coordinator with the Washington Redskins, prompting the NFL to expand its inquiry of Bountygate to those teams as well. A number of current and former players have confirmed that Williams implemented his seek and destroy program everywhere he's been.

When the NFL first inquired about a bounty system, Williams and other Saints officials, including head coach Sean Payton, denied any knowledge of such a scheme. However, after a number of players recanted and confirmed the details of the program, including the amounts awarded to players for each big hit, defined as "knockouts" and "cartoffs," Williams and others came clean and admitted their guilt. Knowing that his judgment day was nigh, Williams issued a belated apology for his actions, although based on his earlier denials and arrogance regarding his activities, it's fair to question how contrite he really is.

Bountygate is the worst public relations disaster for the NFL since the infamous Spygate incident involving the New England Patriots and head coach Bill Belichick. In response to an admission that one of its employees taped a New York Jets practice, the league fined the Patriots $500,000 and docked the team a first round draft pick. Belichick was also fined $250,000.

But Spygate pales in comparison to Bountygate and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell should mete out punishment accordingly. In addition to hefty fines to individuals who knew of the scheme and lied about it to league investigators, a loss of draft picks and stiff suspensions should apply. It wouldn't be excessive to suspend Williams and Payton for at least a season. Anything less would amount to a slap on the wrist and leave the league vulnerable to charges of failing to protect the players from themselves.

NFL bylaws, along with the CBA between the teams and players' union, prohibit noncontract pay for performance bonuses, specifically because they violate the league's salary cap. While the amounts in question are relatively insignificant - ranging from as little as $200 to as much as $1,500 for injuring a player sufficiently to put him on the sidelines - the integrity of the game and player safety are paramount. Clearly, knocking a star quarterback out of a game increases the chances of winning (see the Colts' record in 2011 without Peyton Manning). Team success should be based on outplaying your opponent, not injuring them.

Football is a violent sport and injuries will always be a part of the game. But there is a distinct difference between injuries that are inherent to playing the game and the specific intent to cause harm to another player, not to mention the collateral damage of potentially ruining his livelihood. The players' apparent willingness to inflict permanent damage on each other is nothing short of shameful, and may even benefit the NFL in defending the concussion suits against it.

While Bountygate comes at a sensitive time for the NFL, it also gives Goodell an opportunity to send a strong message that such action will no longer be tolerated in the NFL

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