NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on Wednesday suspended Saints head 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 from 2009-11.
The team will also forfeit its second-round picks in both the 2012 and 2013 drafts.
Discipline for individual players involved in the program, which is prohibited by NFL rules, will be announced at a later date. The bounty program included payments for "knock-outs" 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 and Kurt Warner.
Goodell also suspended Saints general manager Mickey Loomis for the first eight games this 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 said in a statement Wednesday. "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 that took place over the 2009, 2010 and 2011 seasons -- a violation of league rules. The league found that there was a deliberate effort to conceal the program's existence from NFL 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, who 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 said the actions of those disciplined Wednesday violated league rules and constituted conduct detrimental to the NFL and its players, and undermined the integrity of the sport. The league said the violations were compounded by the failure of Payton to discontinue the program and deny to the league that it even existed. The league also said Payton encouraged false denials by telling assistant coaches to "make sure our ducks are in a row;" and ignore instructions from the league office and club ownership to ensure that no such program existed.
"Beyond the clear and continuing violations of league rules, and lying to investigators, the bounty program is squarely contrary to the league's most important initiatives - enhancing player health and safety and protecting the integrity of the game," Goodell said. "Let me be clear. 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 has also instructed all teams to certify that no such bounty program exists at any NFL team. In a memo sent Wednesday to all clubs, Goodell directed the principal owner of every team to meet with the head coach and confirm that the club does not operate a similar pay-for-performance or bounty program, and to instruct his coach that no such program is permissible and that if such a program exists, it must be terminated immediately.
Each principal owner and head coach must certify this in writing to the commissioner by March 30.