By almost any measure, the New Orleans Saints' remarkable run to the Super Bowl XLIV championship after the 2009 season was one of the most heartwarming sports stories of our time. A team that plays in the city where one of the biggest humanitarian disasters in history struck with the fury that was Hurricane Katrina had delivered to its fans a much-needed feeling of rebirth and pride.
That moment, that sense of utter euphoria, will never be forgotten. But the extraordinary achievement is now tarnished in light of the findings of a months-long investigation that revealed the Saints violated the rules of the game and the spirit of sportsmanship. The NFL announced that its security department uncovered a seamy underside to this feel-good story, finding that Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was in the midst of a years-long bounty program that paid his defensive players to knock opposing players out of games.
Among the targets: quarterbacks Kurt Warner of the Arizona Cardinals and Brett Favre of the Minnesota Vikings, both of whom played against the Saints in the 2009 playoffs on the way to the Super Bowl and both of whom were battered with several gratuitous hits. Warner was temporarily knocked out of the game when he was leveled by defensive lineman Bobby McCray after an interception. The league has since made it illegal for defensive players to hit a quarterback after a turnover unless the quarterback is attempting to get in position to make a tackle.
In an era in which promoting player safety has become one of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's central tenets, he now has some important decisions to make about disciplining those involved. We hope he will send the kind of strong message that befits the inexcusable behavior of everyone involved, including those at the very top levels of the organization.
Williams will surely pay a heavy price with a lengthy suspension, even though he now is the defensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams. He admitted his involvement in the program and apologized in a statement Friday. The Washington Post reported that Williams ran a similar program with the Redskins from 2004-07, and then The Buffalo News reported that he ran a bounty program when he was head coach of the Bills (2001-03).
"It was a terrible mistake," Williams said Friday, "and we knew it was wrong while we were doing it. Instead of getting caught up in it, I should have stopped it."
A mistake? No, this was a calculated series of transgressions, used over a period of years in which the inherent understanding among his players was that they should try to knock opponents out of games by hurting them.
According to the NFL's report, the Saints would offer players $1,500 for a "knockout," in which a player would leave the game and not return, and $1,000 for a "cart-off," in which a player had to be removed from the field.
A mistake? That is an unconscionable incentive for players who already are being paid hefty sums for doing their jobs. The better they play, the more they are likely to receive. And playing better should not equate to injuring opponents. The sport already is dangerous enough when played cleanly; it should not be made even more hazardous by having a coach offer additional payouts to make his players hit harder and increase the potential for delivering cheap shots.
According to the league investigation, head coach Sean Payton knew about the bounty program and did nothing to stop it. In addition, the report said, general manager Mickey Loomis was not forthcoming to investigators about the bounty program when asked about it in 2010. The investigation temporarily ended at that point because evidence could not be corroborated.
But when team owner Tom Benson was apprised of the bounty system in early January 2012 after the investigation was reopened, he immediately went to Loomis and ordered it to stop. Investigators found that neither the GM nor the coach took any action.
It's further proof that the commissioner needs to take decisive action, up to and including fines, suspensions and the removal of draft picks.
In a league in which player safety has rightly become a high-priority issue for what should be a more enlightened group of athletes, Goodell must deliver the proper message to reinforce that message.
The punishment must be swift, and it must be severe.