Bounty system results in Sean Payton being sidelined for a year, GM eight games.

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For three years, the New Orleans Saints secretly doled out cash rewards to players for hits on opponents — $1,500 for knocking someone out of the game, $1,000 for getting a player carted off the field.

Wednesday, the league landed its own knockout blow, suspending the Saints’ coach without pay for a year and meting out suspensions to their general manager and two other coaches.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, in going further than any previous commissioner, sent a clear message to professional football: The league is getting more violent and bounties won’t be tolerated.

In addition to suspending Saints coach Sean Payton for a year without pay, Goodell announced an indefinite suspension to former New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, the architect of the pay-for-performance program who now works for the St. Louis Rams. Saints general manager Mickey Loomis, a former Seattle Seahawks executive, will be out for eight games and linebackers coach Joe Vitt for six. New Orleans also lost second-round choices in the next two drafts and was fined $500,000.

The sanctions were the most dramatic indication that the NFL is determined to address player-safety issues and the lifelong effect of concussions, as well as the legal liabilities of looking the other way.

“You know that it won’t happen again; it won’t happen with the Saints, it won’t happen with anyone,” said Hall of Fame coach John Madden, who co-chairs the league’s safety panel with former player Ronnie Lott. “It’s a violent game, it’s a tough game. Just playing it normally, you’re going to have injuries. The game has plenty of natural violence. You don’t need to manufacture any more.”

More suspensions are likely. Discipline for individual players is under review by the NFL Players Association.

“While all club personnel are expected to play to win,” Goodell said, “they must not let the quest for victory so cloud their judgment that they willingly and willfully target their opponents and engage in unsafe and prohibited conduct intended to injure players.”

The Carolina Panthers’ Cam Newton, the NFL’s 2011 offensive rookie of the year and among the star quarterbacks specifically targeted by Saints defenders, recently told the Los Angeles Times he was surprised by the findings of the bounty investigation.

“There’s a golden rule in this league, and the golden rule is you’ve just got to respect everybody’s career,” Newton said. “For any team, any player, any person to have that type of attitude going out on the field with the intentions of being a detriment to another person’s career … I just can’t understand that.”

Amplifying the penalties was the fact the Saints lied in what the league called “a deliberate effort to conceal the program’s existence from league investigators,” and had “a clear determination to maintain the program.”

The league said that Payton, the 2006 NFL coach of the year, encouraged false denials by instructing assistants to “make sure our ducks are in a row.”

Among the revelations in the three-year investigation of the Saints by the NFL, a span that included their Super Bowl victory in the 2009 season, was that cash bounties were placed on four opposing quarterbacks: Minnesota’s Brett Favre, Carolina’s Newton, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Arizona’s Kurt Warner.

Before the 2009 NFC Championship Game against Minnesota, the league determined, Saints linebacker and team captain Jonathan Vilma offered $10,000 to any player who knocked out Favre. He was repeatedly pounded in that game, including some controversial hits.

Some legal experts believe the Saints are fortunate if they are punished only by the NFL, pointing out that paying one player to intentionally injure another crosses more than the boundaries of fair play.

“Being on the field doesn’t immunize you and place you in some kind of sanctuary, vis a vis the normal rules of criminal conduct,” Stanford law professor William B. Gould IV said. “If I pay someone to go out and hurt you, that’s against the law. These guys have paid people to go out and deliberately hurt people.”

Payton is the first head coach suspended by the league for any reason. Payton, whose salary this season was to be at least $6 million, ignored instructions from the NFL and Saints ownership to make sure bounties weren’t being paid.

Goodell’s ruling is a real blow to the Saints, a franchise that Payton and quarterback Drew Brees revived and led to the 2010 Super Bowl title after decades of such futility that fans wore paper bags over their heads at home games.

Brees reacted quickly to the news on Twitter, writing: “I am speechless. Sean Payton is a great man, coach, and mentor. … I need to hear an explanation for this punishment.”

When the NFL first made its investigation public on March 2, Williams admitted to — and apologized for — running the program while in charge of the Saints’ defense. He was hired in January by the St. Louis Rams; head coach Jeff Fisher said Wednesday he’ll probably use a committee of coaches to replace Williams in 2012.

“I accept full responsibility for my actions,” Williams said in a statement issued by the Rams. “I will continue to cooperate fully with the league and its investigation and … I will do everything possible to re-earn the respect of my colleagues, the NFL and its players in hopes of returning to coaching in the future.”

While some players who played for Williams elsewhere said he oversaw bounty systems there, too, the league said its didn’t find evidence that “programs at other clubs involved targeting opposing players or rewarding players for injuring an opponent.” But Goodell could reopen the case if new information emerges.

After the NFL made clear that punishments for the Saints were looming, Payton and Loomis took the blame for violations that they acknowledged “happened under our watch.”

The Associated Press

contributed to this report.

NFL hands out its harshest penalties
The NFL meted out unprecedented punishment for the Saints’ bounty system that targeted key opposing players. The team was fined $500,000 and lost second-round draft picks this year and next. The following individuals were punished:
Name, position Punishment
Sean Payton, head coach Suspended one season without pay
Gregg Williams, def. coordinator Suspended indefinitely
Mickey Loomis, general manager Suspended first eight games
Joe Vitt, assistant coach Suspended first six games