KONY 2012: Doing the Right Thing
TebowMania in New York

New Orleans Saints Bounty Program: The Tip of the NFL Ethical Iceberg

Bounty Program: Who is Being Held Accountable?

Are you interested in being paid $1,500 for a “knockout” in which an opposing football player is unable to return to the game, and $1,000 for a “cart-off” in which opponents are carried off the field? Did you know payments double or triple during the playoffs? It’s all true. What I find so astounding is the league is just now finding out about such practices by the New Orleans Saints. My guess is other teams do the same although they are obviously more subtle about how they implement sanctioned violence against one’s competitors.

Last week the National Football League suspended New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton for a year without pay for his role in the team’s bounty program, which promised money to players if they knocked opponents out of games. The unprecedented punishment was a stunning blow to one of the N.F.L.’s most recently successful and long beloved teams, but also a strong message about how seriously the league takes the threat to player safety. That’s the party line. There is more to the story and the bottom line is that the NFL has shirked its responsibilities to provide for the safest and healthiest environment for players for years.

Some of you may be too young to remember David Duerson, a former four-time Pro Bowl safety and member of the 1985 Super Bowl champs Chicago Bears. Duerson was found dead at his Florida home on February 17, 2011. The Miami-Dade County medical examiner reported that Duerson died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. He sent a text message to his family saying he wanted his brain to be used for research at the Boston University School of Medicine, which is conducting research into chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) that is allegedly caused by playing pro football. On May 2, 2011 researcher neurologists at Boston University confirmed that Duerson suffered from a neurodegenerative disease linked to concussions.

On December 22, 2011, Jamal Lewis, Dorsey Levens and two other former NFL players say in a federal lawsuit that brain injuries have left them struggling with medical problems years after their playing days ended. Some 12 former football players, including former New Orleans Saints receiver and four-time Pro Bowler Joe Horn, filed a lawsuit against the NFL about its concussion policies, saying there was widespread pregame use of an anti-inflammatory drug that could put someone with a head injury at increased risk.

A group of seven players, including former Chicago Bears Super-bowl winning quarterback Jim McMahon, accused the league of training players to hit with their heads, failing to properly treat them for concussions and trying to conceal for decades any links between football and brain injuries. Later in the month, another group of 18 former NFL players sued the league and helmet makers over head injuries suffered during their careers. To its credit, the league now penalizes "leading-with-your helmet hits."

Earlier, in July 2011, 74 former players sued the NFL, claiming the league intentionally withheld knowledge of the damaging effects of concussions for 90 years.

The NFL’s response about hiding their knowledge of potential quality-of-life issues was: “Any allegation that the NFL intentionally sought to mislead players has no merit. It stands in contrast to the league's actions to better protect players and advance the science and medical understanding of the management and treatment of concussions.” Seriously!

First of all, the NFL did nothing to protect players until highly-publicized medical catastrophes occurred such as what happened to Dave Duerson. In that respect the NFL’s response has been similar to Major League Baseball’s initially turning a blind eye to the use of performing-enhancing drugs. Even after public disclosure in infamous cases such as Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Rafael Palmeiro, it took a long time for MLB to develop a valid drug-testing program. As for the NFL, it took a long time to come to the table with a plan to better protect players including quarterbacks who are susceptible to multiple concussions.

Let me return to the Saints “bounty hunter” program. The NFL suspensions included one year for Coach Sean Payton, the banning of General Manager Mickey Loomis for eight games, and indefinitely barring former assistant coach Gregg Williams for running the bounty program that paid players for injuring opponents.

The punishment for Williams is not severe enough. He should be banned for life from the NFL. As for Payton, he and the Saints should have been fined a lot more than the miserly $500,000. This compares to the lowest salary paid to an NFL player in 2011 of $295,000, and those are third-stringers.

The Saints owner, Tom Benson, should demonstrate integrity and send a clear signal that such violence will not be tolerated in the Saints organization and fire Payton. While Williams is mostly to blame, Payton had to know (or should have known) what was going on. What ever happened to “the buck stops here?” Joe Paterno came to understand that he should have taken action when he had the chance in the same way Payton should have as soon as he learned about the program.

We live in a violent society and the violence has worked its way into sports. We live in a cheating culture and cheating has found its way into sports. We live according to a pursuit of self-interests mentality and it has infected sports. Just ask Bill Belichick, coach of the New England Patriots, who was caught videotaping opponents defensive signals. Just ask Sean Payton. Both of these coaches have brought shame to the great cities they represent. Both have tainted their Super Bowl victories. Both have been guilty of taking and/or tolerating actions that lowers the ethics in sports to yet another low level.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on March 26, 2012