NFL's 'Bounty' Penalties Send Right Message
The NFL was unequivocal about its stance on the New Orleans Saints' so-called bounty program in March, when the league suspended head coach Sean Payton for one year and suspended former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams indefinitely. It also slapped Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis and assistant head coach Joe Vitt with eight- and six-game suspensions, respectively.
"Let me be clear," Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement after issuing the league's severest sanction ever for a head coach. "There is no place in the NFL for deliberately seeking to injure another player, let alone offering a reward for doing so. Any form of bounty is incompatible with our commitment to create a culture of sportsmanship, fairness and safety. Programs of this kind have no place in our game, and we are determined that bounties will no longer be a part of the NFL."
Goodell could have cut and paste those sentiments into a statement Wednesday, when the other shoe fell on players implicated in the scandal. Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma was hit the hardest, drawing a one-year suspension that begins immediately and ends after the Super Bowl.
In addition to Vilma, defensive tackle Anthony Hargrove (now with the Green Bay Packers) was suspended for eight games, Saints defensive Will Smith for four games and linebacker Scott Fujita (now with the Cleveland Browns) for three games.
Vilma received the most severe penalty partly because of his leadership role as a defensive captain and partly because he allegedly funded special requests. According to the league, Vilma offered $10,000 in cash to any player who knocked Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner out of a 2009 playoff game, and he pledged the same amount to anyone who knocked Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre out of the following playoff game.
"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," Goodell said Wednesday. "Respect for the men that play the game starts with the way players conduct themselves with each other on the field."
Goodell's message to coaches and players won't be ignored or misunderstood. All of the suspensions are without pay, which will cost Payton about $6 million this year, while Vilma -- who recently restructured his contract -- loses out on roughly $1.6 million. The players have the right to appeal, just as the coaches did. But since the man who issued the penalty is the same man on who hears the appeals (Goodell), chances of a reduction are slim.
Some folks will argue that a yearlong suspension is too stiff. They'll point out that similar practices have occurred elsewhere within the league. They'll also mention that none of the so-called bounties resulted in opponents being injured (although that's like arguing that an attempted-murder charge should be dropped because the target wasn't killed).
I suppose eight games -- half the season -- would have sufficed for Vilma and Payton. But Goodell really wanted to drive the point home, and he did so by wiping out the entire year.
Considering everything that's at stake for the league, including a slew of lawsuits piling up, it's hard to blame Goodell for doubling down.