By JUDY BATTISTA
During the past three seasons, while the National Football League has been changing rules and levying fines in an effort to improve player safety, members of the New Orleans Saints’ defense maintained a lucrative bounty system that paid players for injuring opponents, according to an extensive investigation by the N.F.L.
The bounty system was financed mostly by players — as many as 27 of them — and was administered by the former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who also contributed money to the pool. The N.F.L. said that neither Coach Sean Payton nor General Manager Mickey Loomis did anything to stop the bounties when they were made aware of them or when they learned of the league’s investigation. According to the league, Loomis did not even stop the bounties when ordered to by the team’s owner.
The N.F.L. said the total amount of money in the pool might have reached $50,000 or more at its height during the playoffs of the 2009 season, when the Saints were an inspiring feel-good story as they won the Super Bowl for post-Katrina New Orleans.
The system paid $1,500 for knocking an opposing player out of a game and $1,000 for an opponent’s being carted off the field, with payouts doubling or tripling during the playoffs. According to one person who has seen the full N.F.L. report, the defensive captain Jonathan Vilma offered $10,000 in cash to any player who knocked Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre out of the National Football Conference Championship Game in January 2010. Favre was injured after taking repeated hard hits, but he remained in the game, which the Saints won to advance to the Super Bowl.
Bounties are a violation of N.F.L. rules, and the finding that the Saints, one of the N.F.L.’s most successful teams in recent years, participated in them is a black eye for a league that has sought to address safety and concussion concerns.
With the N.F.L. facing more than a dozen concussion-related lawsuits, Commissioner Roger Goodell has made player safety a focal point of his administration. That portends harsh discipline for the Saints, particularly because people in a position of authority allowed — and in Williams’s case, abetted — the bounties. Possible sanctions include suspensions for players and coaches, fines and the forfeiture of draft picks.
“The payments here are particularly troubling because they involved not just payments for ‘performance,’ but also for injuring opposing players,” Goodell said in a statement. “The bounty rule promotes two key elements of N.F.L. football: player safety and competitive integrity. It is our responsibility to protect player safety and the integrity of our game, and this type of conduct will not be tolerated. We have made significant progress in changing the culture with respect to player safety and we are not going to relent.”
Players, who have been concerned about the large fines levied for hits to the head and neck area, will watch closely to see if coaches and front office officials are punished by Goodell with the same zeal. The Saints’ penalties will probably be severe, if not more severe, than those given to the New England Patriots in 2007, as a result of an investigation into the improper videotaping of opponents’ signals in a case that became known as Spygate. The N.F.L. took away a first-round pick from the Patriots and fined Coach Bill Belichick $500,000 and the team an additional $250,000. The Saints do not have a first round pick this year.
The investigation, led by the N.F.L.’s vice president of security Jeffrey Miller, the former commissioner of the Pennsylvania State Police, began in 2010, when an unnamed player accused the Saints of targeting opponents, including Favre and Kurt Warner, who as quarterback of the Arizona Cardinals briefly left a playoff game against the Saints after taking a hard hit. That player retracted the allegation, which could not be corroborated at the time, but the investigation was revived in the latter part of the 2011 season when the N.F.L. received what it called significant and credible new information.
The N.F.L. said it interviewed a wide range of people, and reviewed approximately 18,000 documents totaling more than 50,000 pages, using outside forensic experts to verify the authenticity of key documents. Under the system, Saints players regularly contributed cash into a pool and also received cash payments for plays like interceptions and fumble recoveries. According to a memo sent to N.F.L. teams explaining the situation, money was contributed to the pool by at least one outsider, Michael Ornstein, a marketing agent who is close to Payton. Ornstein pledged $10,000 toward a quarterback bounty in the playoffs during the 2009 season, and offered substantial sums toward a bounty on an opposing quarterback last season on at least two occasions — once in an email to Payton.
The league said that the Saints’ owner, Tom Benson, cooperated with the investigation and that when he was made aware of the new information in January before the playoffs, he told Loomis to stop the bounties immediately. Loomis did not take any action, the league said. When the initial allegation was made in 2010, Loomis denied any knowledge of the bounties and pledged that he would make sure no program was in place.
Williams, who is now the defensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams, is known for blitzing and aggressive defenses. Before the Saints played the Colts in the 2010 Super Bowl, Williams said in a radio interview that the Saints wanted to rattle Colts quarterback Peyton Manning by delivering “remember me” shots. The Washington Post reported Friday that Williams had a similar bounty system when he was the Redskins’ defensive coordinator. Williams has also been the head coach of the Buffalo Bills and the defensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans.
“I want to express my sincere regret and apology to the N.F.L., Mr. Benson, and the New Orleans Saints fans for my participation in the ‘pay for performance’ program while I was with the Saints,” Williams said in a statement. “It was a terrible mistake, and we knew it was wrong while we were doing it. Instead of getting caught up in it, I should have stopped it.”
Bounties have widely been whispered about in the N.F.L., and the league is so aware of them that it warns teams against it in a memo each year. In 1989 Eagles Coach Buddy Ryan was accused of putting a bounty on opposing Cowboys players in what became known as Bounty Bowl games. After the results of the N.F.L. investigation were announced, linebacker Shawne Merriman wrote on his Twitter feed that he sustained a knee injury because of a bounty placed on him during a 2007 game against the Tennessee Titans when he was with the San Diego Chargers. “Why is this a big deal now?” Merriman wrote. “Bounties been going on forever.”
Trevor Pryce, a former defensive lineman for the Jets and the Ravens, said he did not believe the bounty system was as big a problem as Spygate.
“Trust me, happens in some form or way in any locker room,” Pryce said. But Pryce added: “So much has been made about the safety of players. Going to have to make an example out of the Saints. And they’re going to. Just like they made an example out of the Patriots.”
Greg Bishop contributed reporting.