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What Bounty System Scandal Means for NFL’s Future

March 6, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
NFL investigators found the New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams had created a bounty program to reward players when they injured opposing teams' players. Hari Sreenivasan and Sports Illustrated's Peter King discuss other ongoing investigations and the implications for the future of the NFL.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, the fallout in the National Football League after an investigation into a veteran coach whose past practices went out of bounds.

Hari Sreenivasan has the story.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The man at the center of the scandal, former New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.

An NFL investigation had found Williams had created a so-called bounty program to reward players on his team when they knocked opposing players out of the game. The report released Friday said that between 22 and 27 defensive players on the New Orleans Saints, as well as at least one assistant coach, maintained a bounty program funded primarily by players, in violation of NFL rules.

It quotes NFL commissioner Roger Goodell as saying the investigation began in 2010. . .

ANNOUNCER: Second and eight, and he’s picked off.

HARI SREENIVASAN: After allegations from players that members of the Saints’ defense had targeted opposing players, specifically quarterbacks Brett Favre of the Minnesota Vikings and Kurt Warner of the Arizona Cardinals, among others. . .

ANNOUNCER: Wow, did he get hit.

HARI SREENIVASAN: . . . with rewards of $1,500 for a knockout hit, leaving the player unable to return to the game, and $1,000 for hits resulting in the player being carried off the field.

Williams, now coaching with the Saint Louis Rams, has admitted to and apologized for running the pool of up to $50,000 over the last three seasons. He could face fines and/or suspension. NFL investigators are now looking into whether he ran similar programs with other teams, when he was head coach of the Buffalo Bills from 2001-2003, and as defensive coordinator for the Washington Redskins between 2004 and 2007.

For the latest on the investigation, we turn to Peter King, senior writer on football for Sports Illustrated.

Thanks for being with us.

PETER KING, Sports Illustrated: Oh, you’re welcome.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, tell me, how deep did this investigation by the NFL go? How widespread were these bounty programs?

PETER KING: Well, it was a two-year investigation, on and off — mostly off, quite frankly, because, when the NFL investigated this after the 2009 football season, they sent investigators to New Orleans and interviewed several people, coaches and at least one player with the New Orleans Saints, and they denied the existence of a bounty program.

But then more credible evidence came to the surface. Within the last three months, the NFL reinvestigated. And I think one of the important things in here is that they examined a lot of forensic evidence — and I’m guessing that means e-mails — and found a lot of evidence in the emails that a bounty program existed.

But I think the one important thing to realize here is that there actually are sort of two sort of forms of a bounty. The one that’s getting all the headlines and that I don’t think is nearly as widespread as the other one is the one where players will be offered cash to deliberately injure and knock out a player on the opponent that week.

I think it’s the other kind of bounty that is significantly more prevalent. And that is, you know, $100 for an interception here, $50 for a forced fumble or something like that. So, I don’t believe that every team in the league is offering players $1,500 to knock out the opposing quarterback every Sunday in the league. I think it’s rare, in fact.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Why — did this cross a particular boundary? Why is there so much of an outrage over this?

PETER KING: You know, I think it’s because, over the last 18 months — the NFL, in the middle of the 2010 season, had a horrible weekend, where there were three or four very violent hits and collisions.

And the NFL at that point decided to really ratchet up the fines and the possible suspensions of players for what they considered over-the-top hits. The NFL has been confronted with more than 50 players in the last few years who are suing the National Football League because they feel that the league knew a lot about head trauma and concussions, and did absolutely nothing about it.

So, I think one of the things that the league thought when they started hearing this and why it upset the commissioner, Roger Goodell, so much is, he’s saying, hey, on the one hand, we’re trying to prevent, you know, these really serious hits and to try to make the game, if possible, a little bit safer.

And now you’ve got a rogue outfit, you know, at least some people on the defense of the New Orleans Saints who were encouraging players by incentivizing them to go out and injure the opposing quarterback or somebody on the opponent.

So, I think, you know, those two things are at such cross-purposes that it’s going to force Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the league, to hand down some very severe sanctions.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, how does the NFL change the culture of the sport? I mean, on high school football on Friday nights and college football on Saturdays, you see the stickers on the sides of the helmets for when kids make big plays. And it seems like there — this is an extension of that incentive structure.

PETER KING: Big plays are one thing. And tremendously hard hits in making a tackle, that’s another thing.

But if there is this subculture involving some teams in the NFL where they look on film on Friday and they say, okay, there’s the quarterback — in this case here’s Brett Favre. If you knock him out of the game, we’re going to win. So I’m going to pay you $10,000 as an extra motivation to go knock Brett Favre out of the game.

And I think that is where the NFL feels that we just can’t have that. We can’t have this extra motivation to try to deliberately injure star players, when, on the other hand, they’re fining people severely right now to — you know, to try to prevent some of these colossal hits, you know, and illegal hits that they’re seeing.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, what kind of repercussions are we likely to see here? How seriously is the NFL likely to take this?

PETER KING: I think the NFL is going to take it very seriously.

I believe that the assistant coach that was most involved, who’s already admitted that he was knee-deep in this bounty program, Gregg Williams, who is now with the Saint Louis Rams, I believe he’ll be suspended for at least half of the upcoming season, and won’t be able to coach.

And then I believe that the people who — at the very least — Sean Payton, the head coach of the Saints, Mickey Loomis, the general manager of the Saints, the NFL believes at the very least that they lost institutional control over what was going on, on the defensive side of the ball. I believe both of those men will get suspended as well.

And I think some players, like the aforementioned Jonathan Vilma, a prominent linebacker on the team, who, according to the National Football League, offered his teammates $10,000 to take out Brett Favre in the championship game three years ago.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Peter King from “Sports Illustrated,” thanks so much for your time.

PETER KING: You’re welcome.