Bounty Gate – the latest scandal hitting America

Jonathan Vilma(left) with former Defensive Co-ordinator Gregg Williams

Over the last week, the National Football League revealed that the New Orleans Saints, had a “Bounty” programme in place. Essentially, this meant that the New Orleans Saints were paying their players to deliberately injure and take out opposition opponents. The ring leader of the operation seems to be former New Orleans Saints Defensive Co-ordinator Gregg Williams, now a Co-ordinator with the St. Louis Rams. There has also been further evidence that such a scheme was operated in other Franchises like the Washington Redskins, Tennessee Titans and the Buffalo Bills, with former Redskins players admitting there were payments for “knockouts”. Williams served as a Defensive Co-ordinator with both the Redskins and Titans while serving as a Head Coach with the Bills.

The Saints won the Super Bowl in Williams’ first year as DC and during their journey, the Saints played some spectacular defence, taking away 35 turnovers. The playoffs that season was when people really began to notice the aggressive nature of New Orleans. They faced the Arizona Cardinals in the playoffs that year, with Kurt Warner, the veteran Cardinals QB, suffering an injury with a particularly brutal hit after being intercepted. A vicious hit by a Redskins player is also said to have led to the neck problems that kept Peyton Manning on the sideline last season. (The hit was committed during Gregg Williams’ tenure as Defensive Co-ordinator of the Redskins)

The Saints went on to the NFC Championship game with the Minnesota Vikings, led by Brett Favre, the legendary QB. This is the game that is the cause of most consternation. A unnamed source from Sports Illustrated told the magazine that Saints Linebacker Jonathon Vilma  placed a bounty on Favre’s head. The prize was $10,000 for any defender who knocked Favre out of the game. Judging from the pictures below of Favre’s ankles and legs after the game, (ankle left, leg right) Saints defenders were certainly trying their utmost to claim the prize.

So, you might be wondering what is wrong with this? Players target the opposition in the NFL as they do with other sports, and any advantage is surely one you take? I heard Irish Rugby star Brian O’Driscoll talk on Newstalk Radio’s “Off the Ball” programme a few months ago and he talked about players running at England out-half Jonny Wilkinson’s shoulders and knees as he has had numerous surgeries on them. I, myself have played rugby and we were told to try and hurt opposition players with fair tackling, is there something wrong with that?

Paying players bounties or “non-contract bonuses” doesn’t directly contravene NFL salary Cap rules but is certainly frowned upon. The league constitution specifically forbids payment of bonuses based on performances against an individual player or team, as well as bonuses for on-field misconduct. In addition to concerns about the teams would otherwise be able to use these payments to circumvent the salary cap, the NFL believes such practices undermine the integrity of the game.
The collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association also forbids this practice, and the standard NFL player contract forbids such bonuses as well.

What makes this different is a lot of these hits were “dirty” and late, i.e. after the whistle. It’s alright to put in a fair and legal tackle, nobody can argue about that, it is a shame about the injury but if you need your team to win, and need to put in a big tackle, it’s fair game. The Saints, however, took cheap shots, going below the knees on Favre and those who may have seen some hits from the game will notice the lateness of them. The main issue, in my opinion is the money, paying another person to knock someone out of a game is despicable.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has put a huge emphasis on player safety since his tenure began. The last major scandal that hit the NFL was “SpyGate”. This involved the New England Patriots spying and videotaping the New York Giants defensive signal calls during a game in 2007. Head Coach Bill Belichick was personally fined $500,000 for his role in the incident, the Patriots were fined $250,000 and penalised their original first round selection in the 2008 NFL Draft. There was also some talk that this was not the only time this happened and that the Patriots had done this for large parts of Belichick’s reign, with one source claiming the Patriots videotaped the St. Louis Rams go through practice prior to Super Bowl XXXVI.

So what can the New Orleans Saints expect? Many people felt that Goodell was too soft on the New England Patriots and they deserved stricter punishments and the loss of further draft picks. Arguably this is a more serious issue, the NFL have clamped down on aggressive defensive play like helmet to helmet hits and have put measures in place to help the offensive game (more passing, then rushing) in the hope to reduce injury and promote player safety. While this was one of Goodell’s aims upon entering the league, you could argue that with the rise in concussions among pro football players (from 2009-2010 there was a 21% rise in concussions among players and a 34% rise from 2008-2010), intentionally injuring players for cash will be severely punished by the NFL. The fact that a former NFL player David Duerson committed suicide after suffering numerous concussions during his career, which led to a neurodegenerative disease. Duerson suffered from CTE(Chronic traumatic encephalopathy) which in some cases leads to depression and is found in individuals who have suffered multiple concussions.

Last year’s off-season was very unexciting, the NFL lockout and a lack of OTAs (Organized team Activities) led to little happening until July. Players who were drafted weren’t even allowed sign with their team until the lockout was lifted. One thing is for sure, this scandal has certainly made things a bit more interesting this year!

Conor Philpot also writes for Sportpulse.