NFL commissioner Roger Goodell stuck with his punishments for New Orleans' pay-for-pain bounties, rejecting Saints coach Sean Payton's appeal of a seasonlong suspension.
NEW YORK — Roger Goodell sent a message to every coach and player in the league: safety first.
The commissioner stuck with his punishments for New Orleans’ pay-for-pain bounties Monday, rejecting Saints coach Sean Payton’s appeal of a seasonlong suspension.
A league investigation found that, under Payton’s watch, an assistant ran a program offering cash payouts for hits that knocked targeted opponents out of games or hurt them so badly they needed help getting to the sideline.
Next on Goodell’s agenda: discipline for players involved in the bounty program that began in 2009, the season the Saints won the Super Bowl.
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Given recent history, at least some of those penalties also are likely to be tough.
The Saints case represents perhaps the starkest example of the sea change the NFL has undergone since medical research and media reports on the long-term damage suffered by football players through concussions began to gain attention.
As recently as October 2009, while testifying before Congress, Goodell did not acknowledge a link between head injuries on the field and brain diseases later in life. Hundreds of NFL retirees are suing the league for health problems they say began with their playing careers.
Yet the league has taken a series of steps to better protect players in the past couple of years, and last month expanded the definition of “defenseless players” who may not be hit in the head or neck and cannot be hit by someone leading with a helmet.
While some veteran players say off-the-books incentives have been around for years, and some current players claim tough talk about hitting opponents where they are injured happens in locker rooms throughout the league, Goodell responded to the New Orleans case by handing out unprecedented penalties.
In addition to upholding Payton’s suspension, which begins Monday and runs through the Super Bowl in February 2013 — by coincidence, in New Orleans — Goodell also affirmed suspensions of eight games for Saints general manager Mickey Loomis and six games for assistant head coach Joe Vitt.
Loomis is a former Seahawks executive and Vitt is a former Seahawks assistant coach.
Goodell kept in place a $500,000 fine for the Saints’ franchise and the loss of draft picks this year and next.
Loomis, who along with the team declined to comment, and Vitt begin their suspensions after the exhibition season ends.
Former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who left the Saints in January to join the St. Louis Rams’ staff, ran the bounty program and has been suspended indefinitely. He did not appeal.
Goodell set a precedent last season when he made Detroit defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh sit out for two games after stomping on an opponent, and Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison one game for a tackle that gave Cleveland quarterback Colt McCoy a concussion.
League officials have said as many as 27 New Orleans players could be sanctioned in the scandal. That might include former Saints defensive regulars who have signed elsewhere.
The league’s investigation found Williams’ bounty system, which ran from 2009 through 2011, offered cash payments of $1,500 for “knockouts,” in which an opposing player was knocked out of a game, or $1,000 for “cart-offs,” in which an opponent needed help off the field. The league has said the bounty pool grew as large as $50,000.
The investigation also found Payton initially lied about the existence of a bounty program and instructed his defensive assistants to do the same.
Goodell showed a bit of leniency Monday, saying in a statement if Payton, Loomis and Vitt “embrace the opportunity and participate in a constructive way,” he would consider reducing the financial penalties on them. None of them has been fined, but each will lose significant amounts while not being paid their salaries during the suspensions. Payton, who twice apologized for his role in the bounties, could lose more than $6 million.
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