Sean Payton during his season-ending news conference at their NFL...

Sean Payton during his season-ending news conference at their NFL football training facility in Metairie, La. (Jan. 17, 2012) Credit: AP

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell Wednesday sent a strong and unequivocal message to the New Orleans Saints, handing down unprecedented punishment in the wake of a bounty program that lasted from the 2009-11 seasons.

Goodell suspended Saints coach Sean Payton for a year without pay and former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has been suspended indefinitely for their roles in the team's bounty program. It was the first time in NFL history that a head coach has been suspended.

The team will also forfeit its second-round picks in both the 2012 and 2013 drafts.

Discipline for individual players involved in the bounty program, which is prohibited by NFL rules, will be announced at a later date. The program included payments for "knockouts" and "cart-offs" in which players from opposing teams were forced to leave games after being hurt as the result of Saints' hits. The bounties also targeted specific players by name, including quarterbacks Brett Favre, who was then playing for the Minnesota Vikings, and Kurt Warner of the Arizona Cardinals.

Goodell also suspended Saints general manager Mickey Loomis for the first eight games of the upcoming season and assistant head coach Joe Vitt for the first six games. Both men knew of the program but did nothing to stop it when notified by the league that it was aware of the bounty system.

"We are all accountable and responsible for player health and safety and the integrity of the game," Goodell wrote in a statement. "We will not tolerate conduct or a culture that undermines those priorities. No one is above the game or the rules that govern it. Respect for the game and the people who participate in it will not be compromised.

"A combination of elements made this matter particularly unusual and egregious," Goodell said. "When there is targeting of players for injury and cash rewards over a three-year period, the involvement of the coaching staff, and three years of denials and willful disrespect of the rules, a strong and lasting message must be sent that such conduct is totally unacceptable and has no place in the game."

The NFL conducted an extensive investigation into the team's bounty program. The league found that there was a deliberate effort to conceal the program's existence from league investigators and a clear determination to maintain the system despite being told by Saints owner Tom Benson in January to immediately eliminate the program. Benson was not aware of the program until being informed by the league earlier this year, according to the NFL. He has not been sanctioned, although the Saints were fined $500,000.

The NFL announced its findings on March 2, and conducted follow-up interviews with several of the parties involved before announcing Wednesday's decision. The league said Goodell has also discussed the matter with the leadership of the NFL Players Association, including executive director DeMaurice Smith.

Goodell also sent a memo to all teams instructing their respective owners to certify that bounty programs are not being run.

The Saints released a statement responding to the sanctions: "We recognize our fans' concerns and we regret the uncertainty this episode has created for them. We are humbled by the support our organization has received from our fans today in the wake of this announcement, and we ask them to continue to stand with us, as they have done in the past, when both our team and our city have overcome greater adversities.

"To our fans, the NFL and the rest of our league, we offer our sincere apology and take full responsibility for these serious violations. It has always been the goal of the New Orleans Saints to create a model franchise and to impact our league in a positive manner. There is no place for bounties in our league and we reiterate our pledge that this will never happen again."

Williams, who was hired by the St. Louis Rams as defensive coordinator, will have his situation reviewed by Goodell after the season. Goodell has the power to reinstate him in 2013 or continue the suspension.

Williams released a statement through the Rams: "I'd like to again apologize wholeheartedly to the NFL, coach [Jeff] Fisher, the entire Rams organization and all football fans for my actions. Furthermore, I apologize to the players of the NFL for my involvement as it is not a true reflection of my values as a father or coach, nor is it reflective of the great respect I have for this game and its core principle of sportsmanship."

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