New Orleans Saints bounty scandal

The New Orleans Saints bounty scandal, widely dubbed "Bountygate,"[1][2][3][4] was an incident in which members of the New Orleans Saints team of the National Football League (NFL) were not found guilty but accused of paying out bonuses, or "bounties", for injuring opposing team players. The pool was alleged to have been in operation from 2009 (the year in which the Saints won Super Bowl XLIV) to 2011.

League commissioner Roger Goodell responded with some of the most severe sanctions in the league's 92-year history, and among the most severe punishments for in-game misconduct in North American professional sports history. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was suspended indefinitely, though this would be overturned the following year. Head coach Sean Payton was suspended for the entire 2012 season—the first time since Chuck Fairbanks in 1978 that a head coach had been suspended. General manager Mickey Loomis was suspended for the first eight games of the 2012 season. Assistant head coach Joe Vitt was suspended for the first six games of the 2012 season. The Saints organization was penalized with a $500,000 fine and forced to forfeit their second-round draft selections in 2012 and 2013. In May 2012, four current and former Saints players were suspended after being named as ringleaders in the scandal, with linebacker Jonathan Vilma also being suspended for the entire 2012 season.[5] However, former commissioner Paul Tagliabue overturned all sanctions against the players in December 2012 after finding that despite the players being "very much involved", the coaches and the Saints organization were primarily responsible for the scandal.[6]

Bounty Scandal
New Orleans Saints logo
New Orleans Saints
Date2009–2011
VenueNFL
ParticipantsGregg Williams, Sean Payton, Michael Ornstein, Joe Vitt, 22 to 27 Saints players
OutcomeMass suspensions, federal court hearings and litigation

Background

Gregg Williams at Tulane Commencement 2010
Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams

The NFL has long frowned upon bounties, or "non-contract bonuses" as it officially calls them; but an underground culture of bounties is alleged to exist, with teams, it is claimed, turning a blind eye to the practice. 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; the NFL holds that such practices undermine the integrity of the game, and also would allow teams to use such payments to circumvent the salary cap. The collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association also forbids this practice, as does the standard NFL player contract.[7] Every year, the NFL sends a memo reiterating this ban to every team before training camp opens. However, according to many former players, bounty systems of some sort have been around the NFL for decades, with the percentage of players participating non-scientifically estimated to be between 30 and 40 percent.[8] According to these players, such bounty programs were usually informal and often between players only, more with intent at locker-room braggadocio than systemic malice. What would draw attention to the Saints' bounty program was the alleged practice of methodically organizing such a concept at the coaches' level, with the primary intent to systematically and routinely injure opposing star players.

After the Saints defeated the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship Game, several Vikings players and coaches claimed that the Saints were deliberately trying to hurt Vikings quarterback Brett Favre. The Vikings were particularly angered when Saints defensive end Bobby McCray and defensive tackle Remi Ayodele knocked Favre to the ground with a high-low hit. McCray hit Favre below the knees, briefly knocking Favre out of the game with an ankle injury. No penalty was called on the play, though NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira said one should have been called, saying it was "the type of hit we don't want." Vikings coach Brad Childress later said that there were at least 13 instances where he felt the Saints deliberately went after Favre. Later, CBSSports.com NFL columnist Clark Judge said several Vikings assistants told him they believed McCray was acting on direct orders from Williams, with at least one being so outraged that he threatened to "punch [Williams] in the face" the next time they met.[9] Vikings owner Zygi Wilf even went as far as to complain to the league about what happened to Favre, though no action was taken at the time.[10] Favre took such a severe beating that Vikings punter Chris Kluwe and placekicker Ryan Longwell wondered during the game if someone had put a bounty on him.[11]

Favre's agent, Bus Cook, later said that he also felt the Saints were deliberately trying to knock Favre out of the game, and claimed that several hits on Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner in the divisional round a week earlier crossed the line as well.[12] It initially appeared that Cook's argument was strengthened by the fact that Warner was knocked out of that game with a chest injury (although he later returned), and retired two weeks later. However, Warner later said that the hit which knocked him out was legal, and had nothing to do with his decision to retire.[13]

Investigation

Roger Goodell at Super Bowl 43
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell

In the 2010 offseason, an anonymous player told NFL officials that the Saints had targeted Favre and Warner as part of a bounty program administered by Williams; the NFL's security department found the allegations credible enough to open an investigation. However, the players and team officials interviewed all denied that any bounty program existed, and the player who made the initial report subsequently recanted his allegations.[7][14]

The NFL began investigating the Saints in 2010 in response to allegations of deliberate attempts to injure players during the 2009–10 playoffs, but the investigation stalled until late in the 2011 season. On March 2, 2012, the NFL announced that it had evidence that defensive coordinator Gregg Williams had created the program soon after his arrival in 2009, and alleged that "between 22 and 27 Saints players" were involved.[7] Williams and the players pooled their own money to pay out performance bonuses. It also asserted that head coach Sean Payton tried to cover up the scheme, and that he and general manager Mickey Loomis failed to shut it down when ordered to do so by team owner Tom Benson. Since then, Williams has been accused of operating similar schemes during his tenure as defensive coordinator of the Tennessee Oilers/Titans and Washington Redskins and as head coach of the Buffalo Bills; the NFL briefly investigated these allegations but elected to focus on the Saints.

Whistleblower

In 2012, ESPN reported that former New Orleans Saints defensive assistant Mike Cerullo contacted the NFL regarding a bounty program after the 2009 postseason. [15] Cerullo was released after the 2009 postseason for poor performance and lying about personal leave according to the New Orleans Saints.[16] Cerullo testified that he kept track of payments and pledges made. Cerullo also states in the article, "I was angry for being let go from the Saints". In the summer of 2017, the NFL hired Mike Cerullo as Director of Football Administration. [17]

Findings revealed

Late in the 2011 season, the NFL received what it called "significant and credible new information" that suggested there was indeed a "bounty" program in place.[7] League officials, convinced that this information was irrefutable evidence a program was indeed in place, alerted Benson of their findings just before the Saints' first-round playoff game against the Detroit Lions.[18] The investigation continued during the 2011–12 playoffs and continued through the 2012 offseason.

On March 2, 2012, ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that the NFL had indeed found evidence of a bounty program.[19] Later that day, the NFL announced it had obtained irrefutable proof of a bounty pool dating back to the 2009 season, based on a review of 18,000 documents. It determined that Williams had initiated the fund soon after he arrived in New Orleans in 2009, in hopes of making the defense more aggressive. Between 22 and 27 Saints defensive players were involved. The players and Williams contributed their own cash to the pot, and received cash payments based on their performance in the previous week's game. For instance, a special teamer who downed a kick returner inside the receiving team's 20-yard-line earned $100. Players could also be fined for mental mistakes and penalties. Players also received "bounties" for "cart-offs" (plays in which an opponent was removed from the field on a stretcher or cart) and "knockouts" (plays that resulted in a player being unable to return for the rest of the game). Players usually earned $1,000 for "cart-offs" and $1,500 for "knockouts" during the regular season, though they were encouraged to put their winnings back into the pot in order to raise the stakes as the season went on. Payments were known to double or even triple during the playoffs.[7][18][20]

The NFL sent a confidential and detailed memo to all 32 teams detailing its findings. It revealed that the Saints had not only targeted Warner and Favre during the 2009 playoffs, but had also targeted Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton during the 2011 regular season.[21] According to that memo, Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma offered $10,000 cash to any teammate who knocked Favre out of the NFC Championship Game.[14] Another source told CBSSports.com's Mike Freeman that Reggie Bush's agent at the time, Michael Ornstein, was closely involved in the scheme from the beginning. Ornstein contributed $10,000 to the pot in 2009, and an undisclosed amount in 2011.[22]

After later investigations in the 2012 offseason, the NFL also found evidence that the Saints put a bounty on then-Seattle Seahawks quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck during their 2011 wild-card playoffs game.

The league found that Payton not only knew about the scheme, but tried to cover it up during both league investigations. During the 2010 investigation, Payton told Williams and Vitt to "make sure our ducks are in a row" when the league interviewed them. Before the start of the 2011 season, Payton received an email from Ornstein detailing the broader lines of the scheme. In that same email, Ornstein offered $5,000 to anyone who knocked Rodgers out of the 2011 season opener. Payton initially denied knowing that this email existed, but subsequently admitted that in fact he had read it.[18][22][23][24]

When Benson was informed of the league's findings, he called in Payton and Loomis and ordered the program shut down immediately. However, they did not do so. Loomis had been interviewed during the 2010 investigation as well, and had stated that he knew of no such scheme and would stop it immediately if it was taking place. The league also found that Vitt, whom Payton had assigned to monitor Williams (the two reportedly didn't get along very well), also knew about the broader lines of the scheme and even witnessed Williams handing out payments to players. However, Vitt failed to tell anyone about it.[7][20]

The NFL found that Payton and Loomis' misfeasance amounted to "conduct detrimental" to the league.[25] The NFL found no club money had been used to fund the bounty pool, and praised Benson for doing what he could to shut down the slush fund. Nonetheless, it found the Saints organization as a whole guilty of conduct detrimental to the league as well due to Williams and the players' maintenance of the bounty pool, as well as Loomis and Payton's failure to act "in a responsible manner" to stop it.[20][26]

Several Chicago Bears players and fans believe that the Bears were targets of this program during the second game of the 2011 season, a 30–13 loss to the Saints. Quarterback Jay Cutler was sacked six times, and nearly lost his voice when a Saints player kicked him in the throat. Later in the game, offensive tackle Frank Omiyale yanked a Saints defender off Cutler when he saw what he later called "some dirty stuff."[27] Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman reported that the Saints' tendency toward illegal hits was common knowledge among the Tampa Bay coaching staff. Preparations for Saints games included warnings to offensive players to keep their knees protected, especially on plays near the sidelines.[28]

In June 2012, the league revealed that it possessed a ledger detailing the weekly earnings of the players, which are earned for cart-offs ($1000) and "whacks" ($400) and deducted for "mental errors".[29][30]

However, on July 26, 2012, Vilma and seven witnesses from the Saints testified in front of a federal judge in New Orleans that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell got his facts wrong in the bounty scandal. "Everybody was sworn in under oath in front of a judge with the risk of perjury and jail time if we were lying, and categorically denied there was a bounty," Vilma said in a text message to ESPN's Ed Werder. "Seven people testified, 2 sworn affidavits (one by Drew Brees) all saying the same thing. I ask that you and ESPN report the facts. No more bias or b.s. or hearsay. I gave you facts that you can report if  [ ⁠you ⁠] so choose."[31] Tulane University Sports Law Program Director Gabe Feldman (who attended the hearing in court) said, "Clearly the judge, by her questions, indicated she thinks Goodell overstepped his authority, and this case was always going to be about if he executed his power fairly... The NFL's retort is that with all due deference, you don't get to second guess (commissioner Roger Goodell). Judges only have limited jurisdiction over arbitration issues."[32]

Saints All-Pro quarterback Drew Brees made a somewhat controversial tweet on June 20, 2012 stating, "If NFL fans were told there were "weapons of mass destruction" enough times, they'd believe it. But what happens when you don't find any????" Brees immediately issued another statement to clarify, "My WMD comment has nothing to do with politics or our brave military. Merely an analogy to show how media influences public perception." He went on to say, "I apologize if the WMD comment offended anyone. Especially our military. There is no one I respect more than our service men and women."[33]

Other allegations against Williams

Shortly after the Saints' bounty system came to light, four former Washington Redskins players, as well as a coach, told The Washington Post that Williams operated a similar system while he was the Redskins' defensive coordinator from 2004 to 2007. The players said that Williams paid his crew thousands of dollars for aggressive play, with the biggest payouts—as much as $8,000—coming for "kill shots" that knocked opposing players out of games.[34] Chicago Tribune NFL analyst Matt Bowen, who played for the Redskins at the time, later wrote in one of his regular columns that the bounty pool was funded by fines for mistakes made during practice and in games, and insisted similar systems operated on other teams.[35] On March 4, The Post reported that the NFL was investigating the allegations against Williams with the Redskins.[36]

Several former Bills players subsequently told The Buffalo News of a similar system during Williams' tenure as Bills' head coach from 2001 to 2003. However, they didn't agree on whether there were rewards for intentionally injuring players. Coy Wire, a safety during Williams' tenure, said that Williams gave bonuses for hits that left opponents seriously injured, and two other players said that bonuses were also awarded for "knockouts." However, linebacker Eddie Robinson, who played for Williams in Houston and Tennessee as well as in Buffalo, acknowledged an incentive pool but said he never heard Williams favor deliberately injuring other players.[37] Ruben Brown, a guard for the Bills during Williams's time as coach there, denied there was any sort of bounty system in place in Buffalo,[38] a position reiterated by linebacker London Fletcher and then-general manager Tom Donahoe.[39][40] Chidi Ahanotu, who played one year under Williams in Buffalo, indicated that such a program was not within his character at the time and that Williams was "the softest coach I've been around."[41]

Former NFL coach Tony Dungy later told Profootballtalk.com he was certain that Williams operated a similar bounty system while he was defensive coordinator of the Oilers/Titans from 1997 to 2000. He also believes that Williams put a bounty on Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning during Super Bowl XLIV, and targeted Manning on several occasions while with the Titans. The revelation of the bounty system also caused renewed speculation about a 2006 game between the Redskins and Colts, in which Manning was knocked down by a high-low hit from the Redskins' Phillip Daniels and Andre Carter and appeared to lose some feeling in his neck. While Dungy didn't speculate at the time about whether the Redskins targeted Manning on that play, he believes that hit ultimately caused the neck problems that sidelined Manning for the entire 2011 season and led to his departure for the Denver Broncos afterward.[42]

Former safety Ryan Clark, who played under Williams in Washington from 2004–2005 and himself was fined by the NFL $40,000 for a helmet-to-helmet hit against Baltimore Ravens tight end Ed Dickson during the 2011 season,[43] defended Williams, saying that he never ran a bounty program with the Redskins and has yet to see one during his time in the NFL. Clark added that he would've reported Williams or any coach that offered to run such a program.[44] The Steelers released a statement on their official web site mentioning that the team does not condone any sort of bounty program.[45]

Aftermath

Williams, who left after the season to become defensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams, was summoned to NFL headquarters after the investigation concluded in mid-February. He initially denied any involvement, but recanted and admitted everything in a meeting with Goodell.[18] After the story broke, Williams issued a statement calling his involvement "a terrible mistake." Williams said that he knew all along the slush fund broke the rules, and that "I should have stopped it" rather than get further involved.[12] Goodell said in a statement that he found it "particularly disturbing" that the Saints were deliberately trying to injure other players. He said that players and coaches involved in the scheme could face fines or suspensions, and the Saints could be docked picks in the 2012 NFL Draft and future drafts.[7][12]

Benson issued a statement on the Saints' Website saying, "I have been made aware of the NFL’s findings relative to the “Bounty Rule” and how it relates to our club. I have offered and the NFL has received our full cooperation in their investigation. While the findings may be troubling, we look forward to putting this behind us and winning more championships in the future for our fans."[46]

On March 3, Fox Sports' Jay Glazer reported that the NFL intended to hand down penalties before the owners' meeting in late March.[47] The NFLPA asked the league to delay any sanctions until the union could conduct its own investigation.[48]

CBSSports.com's Pat Kirwan tweeted that within hours of the NFL releasing its report, lawyers for several players were already telling him that their clients were considering legal action against the Saints and Williams.[49] Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young, who has a law degree from BYU, suggested that anyone who had been injured during a Saints game during the scheme's existence has grounds for a lawsuit.[50] Louisiana State University law professor William Corbett told Fox Sports that any legal action by players has a chance of succeeding. He cited a 1977 case in which Denver Broncos defensive back Dale Hackbart sued the Cincinnati Bengals for a late hit to the back by running back Boobie Clark that fractured three vertebrae four years earlier and ended his career. A Colorado court ruled against Hackbart, saying violence was part of the game. However, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, saying that "the general customs of football" do not include deliberately attempting to injure opposing players.[51]

On March 6, Payton and Loomis issued a statement taking "full responsibility" for not stopping the alleged "bounty" program. Payton and Loomis also apologized to Benson and the Saints fans, and promised that such behavior would never happen again.[52] Three days later, Drew Brees, the starting quarterback for the Saints, issued a statement denying any knowledge of or involvement in the program.[53] On March 12, WWL-TV in New Orleans reported that Payton and Benson met with Goodell in New York for much of the morning to reiterate that the Saints would continue to cooperate fully with the NFL's investigation.[54] On March 22, U.S. Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois announced he would invite Goodell and the heads of the other major American sports leagues to a hearing on bounty systems. He also said that unless the leagues themselves "come up with standards to make sure this isn't going to happen again," he may consider drafting legislation that would extend federal sports bribery laws to cover bounties.[55]

On April 5, documentary filmmaker Sean Pamphilon released audio of a meeting Williams held with his defense before their 2012 divisional playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers. In a profanity-laced speech, Williams instructed his players to deliberately try to injure several 49ers players. He ordered his men to try to knock out running back Kendall Hunter, even if it meant hitting him out of bounds. He specifically directed them to try to tear wide receiver Michael Crabtree's ACL, injure tight end Vernon Davis' ankles and go after kick returner Kyle Williams specifically because he had a history of concussions. He also appeared to put a bounty on quarterback Alex Smith; according to Pamphilon, after Williams told his men to hit Smith in the chin, "then he rubs his thumb against his index and middle fingers – the cash sign – and says, I got the first one. I got the first one. Go get it. Go lay that motherfucker out." Pamphilon, who was doing a documentary on Steve Gleason and his fight against Lou Gehrig's Disease, released the audio to Yahoo! Sports without Gleason's approval.[56][57] However, the Saints were not penalized for illegal hits during that game, which they lost 36–32.[58]

Sanctions

Coaches and front office staff

On March 21, 2012, the NFL issued sanctions to Saints coaches and front-office personnel for their roles in the scandal.[59][60]

  • Williams was suspended indefinitely, and was banned from applying for reinstatement until the end of the 2012 season at the earliest.
  • Payton was suspended for the entire 2012 season, effective April 1. He is the first head coach in modern NFL history to be suspended for any reason.
  • Loomis was suspended for the first eight games of the 2012 season.
  • Vitt, who had been tabbed as a possible candidate to serve as interim coach in Payton's absence, was suspended for the first six games of the 2012 season.[20][24][61] (This did not automatically disqualify Vitt from serving as interim head coach per se, as his suspension was not effective until the regular season; the suspension terms allowed him to coach the team through training camp and the preseason, then return during Week 7. The Saints announced they would implement this scenario for 2012.)[62][63]

The Saints were also fined $500,000—the maximum fine permitted under the league constitution, and had to forfeit their second-round draft picks in 2012 and 2013 (their first-round pick in 2012 had already been traded to the New England Patriots, and therefore, could not be forfeited; after the penalty; the Saints' first pick in the 2012 NFL Draft is a third-rounder).[20][24] He also gave the league's clubs until March 30, 2012 to certify in writing that they do not have bounty programs. Clubs will also be required to certify that no bounty systems exist as part of the yearly certifications they must make under the league's Integrity of the Game Policy.[64]

In a statement, Goodell said that the NFL would not tolerate "conduct or a culture" that put player safety at risk. He also said that the fact that the scheme went on for three years demanded that "a strong and lasting message must be sent that such conduct is totally unacceptable and has no place in the game."[20] He was particularly upset that those involved had lied about the scheme on two separate investigations, and had denied that there was ever a bounty program in place. In an interview with NFL Network's Rich Eisen, Goodell said that the threat to player safety, as well as the fact the Saints lied about it, demanded significant punishment. "I don't think you can be too hard on people that put at risk our players' health and safety," Goodell told Eisen.[65] He reiterated this in an interview later that day with ESPN's Schefter, saying that the fact those involved "continued to mislead" the league about it was a significant factor in the sanctions. "You have to be accountable and responsible in the NFL," Goodell said. Goodell also implied that Payton would have faced significant punishment in any event, since his contractual obligation to supervise his assistants meant that he at least should have known about the scheme. He also said that there would be zero tolerance for payments for in-game performance in the future, saying that payments for good play eventually escalate to bounties for deliberately injuring players.[66] Later, Schefter said on ESPN's SportsCenter that league officials felt Payton was at least as guilty as Williams, despite initial focus on Williams' role as the mastermind in the scheme.

On March 30, Payton, Vitt and Loomis appealed their suspensions, and the Saints also appealed the fine and loss of draft picks.[67] Payton, Vitt and Loomis met with Goodell on April 5. After that meeting, Vitt's lawyer, David Cornwell, said that Payton and Loomis met with Williams before the divisional playoff game and ordered him to shut down the bounty program immediately. Cornwell contended that Williams was a "rogue coach," and the recently released audio of his meeting with the defense only proved it.[68]

Goodell denied the appeals on April 9, meaning that Payton's suspension began as of April 16. However, depending on the Saints' cooperation and that of the individuals involved, Goodell could restore the Saints' second-round pick in 2013 (though the Saints would still lose a lower-round pick), as well as reduce the fine on the Saints and restore Payton, Vitt and Loomis' lost pay. However, all appeals were denied[69]

Players

The NFLPA requested that the league should hold off on any punishments for the players until it conducts its own investigation.[24] Goodell told Schefter, however, that he would hand down punishments to the players involved very soon once he gets feedback from the NFLPA.[66]

Hours after the sanctions were announced, Kluwe went on KSTP in the Twin Cities and demanded that any players involved in the scheme be severely punished, and that the NFLPA let it be known that "there's no place in the league for that kind of behavior." He even went as far as to call for Vilma—the only player specifically named as being involved in the scheme in the NFL's initial announcements—to be banned from the league for life.[70] His sentiments were echoed a day later by Vikings center John Sullivan, who told KFXN-FM in the Twin Cities that any Saint who deliberately tried to hurt Favre in that game should get a lifetime ban. Sullivan called the Saints' treatment of Favre "despicable" and "the exact opposite of sportsmanship," and even called for the league to take some sort of action against players involved in that game who had since retired, such as McCray.[71]

On May 2, 2012, the NFL suspended four then-current or former Saints players for their involvement in the bounty scandal:

Vilma's suspension took effect immediately, while the other three players are allowed to attend training camp. In announcing the suspensions, Goodell said that while a large number of players took part in the program, he chose to suspend those players who "were in leadership positions at the Saints; contributed a particularly large sum of money toward the program; specifically contributed to a bounty on an opposing player; demonstrated a clear intent to participate in a program that potentially injured opposing players; sought rewards for doing so; and/or obstructed the 2010 investigation." The NFL determined that Vilma and Smith helped Williams start the bounty program. Hargrove lied to league officials during the 2010 investigation, but later signed a letter to the NFL admitting that he was active participant in the scheme. He also told at least one other player that the Saints had put a bounty on Favre in the 2009 NFC title game. Fujita, who left the team for the Browns immediately after the Saints won Super Bowl XLIV, pledged "a significant amount of money" into the bounty program.[72]

Earlier, Goodell had indicated that he was going to come down hard on the players involved, telling Eisen that they "enthusiastically embraced" the scheme. "They are on the field, so so I don't think they are absolved from any responsibility because of that," he said.[73]

The NFLPA released a statement calling the suspensions unjustified, claiming that Goodell had not furnished them with any evidence supporting the sanctions.[5] The union lodged a formal grievance on May 4, contending that since the suspensions were for on-field misconduct, the players' appeals should be heard by Ted Cottrell and Art Shell, whom the collective bargaining agreement designates as the hearing officers for on-field sanctions. It also contended that since the alleged conduct took place before the most recent CBA was signed in August, Goodell should have deferred to NFL special master Stephen Burbank in ruling on the players' actions.[74] Goodell issued the suspensions as part of his power to sanction any "conduct detrimental to the integrity and public confidence in the NFL," a violation of Article 46 of the CBA. This provision is normally used to sanction off-field conduct.[75] However, a league source told CBSSports.com's Judge that it also gives Goodell the power to rule on in-game conduct if he feels that it runs counter to the integrity of the game.[76]

On July 26, 2012, Jonathan Vilma and seven witnesses from the Saints testified in front of a federal judge in New Orleans that Goodell got his facts wrong in the bounty scandal. "Everybody was sworn in under oath in front of a judge with the risk of perjury and jail time if we were lying, and categorically denied there was a bounty," Vilma said in a text message to ESPN's Ed Werder. "Seven people testified, 2 sworn affidavits (one by Drew Brees) all saying the same thing. I ask that you and ESPN report the facts. No more bias or b.s. or hearsay. I gave you facts that you can report if  [ ⁠you ⁠] so choose."[31] Tulane University Sports Law Program Director Gabe Feldman (who attended the hearing in court) said, "Clearly the judge, by her questions, indicated she thinks Goodell overstepped his authority, and this case was always going to be about if he executed his power fairly... The NFL's retort is that with all due deference, you don't get to second guess (commissioner Roger Goodell). Judges only have limited jurisdiction over arbitration issues."[32]

All four players appealed their suspensions. On September 7, 2012, the Burbank appeals panel vacated the suspensions imposed on the four, and the NFL confirmed that the ruling reinstated them in time for their first games of the 2012 season two days later.[77] Two days after the fifth game of the season, on October 9, 2012, the league re-issued the suspensions without any changes or reductions; the players' appeals continued.[78]

On October 27, 2012, former league commissioner Paul Tagliabue postponed the bounty appeals hearing,[79] expecting to set a new schedule on October 29, 2012.[80] On December 11, with three games left in the regular season, Tagliabue vacated the players' suspensions, saying in his ruling, "I affirm Commissioner Goodell's factual findings as to the four players. I conclude that Hargrove, Smith and Vilma—but not Fujita—engaged in 'conduct detrimental to the integrity of, and public confidence in, the game of professional football ..." He laid primary responsibility for the scandal on Williams and Payton.[6]

Had the suspensions of Vilma and Hargrove been upheld, they would have been the longest for an on-field incident in modern NFL history, topping the previous record set in 2006, when then-Titans defensive end Albert Haynesworth was given a five-game suspension for stomping on the head of Dallas Cowboys offensive lineman Andre Gurode.

Vilma played the final 11 games of the 2012 season for the Saints; Smith played all 16. Fujita played the first four games of the season for the Browns before suffering a season-ending (and ultimately, career-ending) neck injury;[81] he would sign a ceremonial one-day contract with the Saints in the offseason and retire with the team.[82] Hargrove, signed as a free agent by the Green Bay Packers in March 2012,[83] did not play during the 2012 season. Nonetheless, the loss of Payton, combined with the distractions caused by the scandal, proved too much for the Saints to overcome. After finishing 13–3 and reaching the Divisional round of the playoffs a year earlier, they finished 7–9 and missed the playoffs.

Media reaction

The behavior detailed in the report was almost universally condemned in the press. In an editorial, New Orleans' local paper The Times-Picayune called the revelations "an embarrassment for one of the most successful and beloved sports organizations of recent years," and that they were "particularly hard to take for (Saints') fans" in light of the Saints' rebound after Hurricane Katrina.[84] ESPN columnist Gregg Easterbrook claimed that the Saints' behavior threatened the very integrity of the sport since high school and youth players have long emulated what they see in the NFL. He also claimed that NFL Network yanked its planned replay of the 2009 NFC Championship Game due to concern that fans might look more closely for late hits that should have been called.[50]

Most of the players who were the targets of questionable hits by the Saints, including Favre and Warner, claimed the bounties were merely part of the game.[51] However, several former players interviewed by Sports Illustrated said that while payments for good hits and sacks were indeed considered part of the game, bounties for intentionally injuring opponents violated an unwritten code. One of those interviewed, Junior Seau, bluntly said that such practices crossed the line into threatening a person's livelihood.[85] (Seau would commit suicide less than two months after the interview was published; it was discovered after his death that he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) as a result of the numerous head injuries Seau suffered during his 20-year NFL career.)[86] Seau's sentiments were echoed by Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton. In an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, Tarkenton wrote that he played against the likes of Mean Joe Greene, Ray Nitschke and Dick Butkus, and none of them even considered deliberately trying to hurt him. He also said that he discussed the issue with several players from his era, and they unanimously agreed that players who put bounties on opponents were "cowards."[87]

Kevin Seifert, who blogs on the NFC North for ESPN.com, wrote that neither he nor most Vikings fans were surprised at the discovery of the bounty program. Seifert argued that even before the findings were revealed, it was obvious that the Saints were determined to inflict a severe beating on Favre, even if it meant breaking the rules. The only difference in Seifert's mind was that he no longer believed the Saints were out of control. Rather, he wrote, they were acting as "part of a larger mentality" instilled by Williams.[10]

Speculation quickly abounded about how severely Goodell, who has made player safety and the overall integrity of the game a point of emphasis during his six years as commissioner, would punish Williams and the Saints. In his weekly "Monday Morning Quarterback" column on March 5, SI's Peter King wrote that he believed Williams faced at least an eight-game suspension, and that Payton and Loomis would almost certainly be suspended as well. He also argued that Goodell would have no choice but to come down hard on the Saints, given that the league was facing numerous lawsuits brought by former players who suffered head injuries. Given the circumstances, King said, Goodell had a lot of incentive to "issue a string of suspensions the likes of which the league has never seen."[26] In an article written for the March 12 edition of SI, King wrote that league officials were so outraged that they were likely to hand down penalties similar to the season-long bans Paul Hornung and Alex Karras received in 1963 for gambling.[18] Freeman wrote that his sources in the league office had told him that the players, Williams, Payton and Loomis would all face suspensions of at least six games, as well as heavy fines. Freeman's sources also said that Payton's sanctions were likely to dwarf those handed down to the New England Patriots' Bill Belichick in the wake of the 2007 "Spygate" affair. He also believed that Goodell was going to use the scandal to "end the practice of bounty football forever," much like the penalties imposed against the Patriots after "Spygate" effectively ended the longstanding practice of illicit videotaping.[8]

After the sanctions were announced, CBSSports.com's Gregg Doyel wrote that the severity of the punishments handed down to Williams, Payton and Loomis proved that Goodell was truly sincere in his desire to "take the thuggishness out of the NFL." Doyel also said that while many players had chafed at what they saw as Goodell's heavy-handed approach to discipline, he was actually standing up for their safety in the Saints' case.[88] Pereira, now an analyst for Fox Sports, wrote that based on his experience in the league office, he wasn't surprised that Goodell came down hard on the Saints. He recalled that Goodell was always upset when officials didn't penalize hits on defenseless players.[89]

The revelation of Williams' pregame speech was also greeted with revulsion. ESPN NFL analyst and former Dallas Cowboys safety Darren Woodson said that much of Williams' speech was standard pregame rhetoric. According to Woodson, when Williams called for his men to "attack the head" of running back Frank Gore, he was saying that the 49ers' offense would be rendered ineffective if they managed to shut Gore down. However, Woodson felt that several parts of Williams' speech—particularly his calls to go after Crabtree's ACL and target Williams specifically because he had concussions in the past—went too far.[90] His former teammate, NFL Network analyst Michael Irvin, said that he "almost threw up" when he heard Williams tell his men to go after Crabtree's ACL, saying that players are taught from youth football onward to "never take out a man's knees."[91] Fox Sports' Mark Kriegel argued that the tape proved Williams was "woefully underpunished," especially since he made the speech after being alerted that the NFL had reopened its investigation. He called for Goodell to ban him from the league for life.[92]

NFL Network analyst Michael Lombardi wrote that the scandal happened in part because during Williams' previous stops as a defensive coordinator, the head coaches under which he worked—Fisher, Joe Gibbs and Payton—essentially ceded him complete authority over the defense. Lombardi claimed that as a result, Williams operated essentially as "an independent contractor." Lombardi argued that such a situation is "never fully sustainable," as it can easily lead to the head coach losing control.[93]

Despite the media outcry, an independent study speculated that Saints' players may have pretended to participate off the field but not put the tactics into action on the field. "If the Saints tended to injure more players, then teams that played them would tend to list more injuries the following week. To test whether the Saints injured more players than a typical team, one need only compare the number of players added to injury reports after a Saints game to the league-wide average. Did the New Orleans Saints injure more players? The data-driven answer is a resounding 'no.' The Saints appear to have injured far fewer players over the 2009, 2010 and 2011 seasons. The numbers are striking."[94]

See also

References

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2009 New Orleans Saints season

The 2009 New Orleans Saints season was the franchise's 43rd season in the National Football League (NFL). It was the most successful season in franchise history, culminating with a victory in Super Bowl XLIV. The Saints recorded a franchise record 13 regular season victories (later tied in the 2011 and 2018 seasons), an improvement on their 8–8 record and fourth-place finish in the National Football Conference (NFC)'s southern division from 2008. As a result, the Saints advanced to the playoffs for the first time since 2006. For head coach Sean Payton, this was his fourth season with the franchise, commanding a club overall record of 36–24, though it also marked the first year of the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal that would ultimately result in his unprecedented (for a coach) one-year suspension from the league.With a victory over the Carolina Panthers on November 8, the Saints jumped out to an 8–0 start, the best in franchise history. They went on to set the record for the longest undefeated season opening (13–0) by an NFC team since the AFL–NFL merger, eclipsing the previous record (12–0) held by the 1985 Chicago Bears. This record has since been tied by the 2011 Green Bay Packers and surpassed by the 2015 Carolina Panthers. Despite losing the last three games of the season to finish 13–3, the team clinched a playoff berth, a first-round bye and—for the first time ever—the top seed in the NFC. The Saints defeated Kurt Warner and the defending NFC Champions Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Divisional playoffs, and proceeded to host the NFC Championship Game for the first time in franchise history. There, they defeated Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings in overtime, then went on to face Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts at Super Bowl XLIV in the franchise's first-ever Super Bowl appearance. The Saints won the Super Bowl 31–17, giving the city of New Orleans its first NFL championship. The Saints are the first team to defeat three former Super Bowl winning quarterbacks in a row in the playoffs to win the Super Bowl. The Saints, along with the New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, are the only teams to go to one Super Bowl and win it.

Although five Saints were elected to the Pro Bowl (with two others added as injury replacements), since the game was held one week prior to Super Bowl XLIV, they did not participate.

Anthony Hargrove

Anthony La'Ron Tony Hargrove (born July 20, 1983) is a former American football defensive end. He was drafted by the St. Louis Rams in the third round of the 2004 NFL Draft. He played college football at Georgia Tech.

Hargrove also played for the Buffalo Bills as well as winning Super Bowl XLIV with the New Orleans Saints, beating Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. He was also a member of the Philadelphia Eagles and Seattle Seahawks in 2011, and Green Bay Packers in 2012.

Bounty Bowl

The Bounty Bowl was the name given to two NFL games held in 1989 between the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys. The first, a 1989 Thanksgiving Day game in Dallas, was noted for allegations that the Eagles put a $200 bounty on Cowboys kicker Luis Zendejas, who had been cut by Philadelphia earlier that season. The second was a rematch held two weeks later in Philadelphia. The Eagles, favored to win both games, swept the series.

Cameron Jordan

Cameron Tyler Jordan (born July 10, 1989) is an American football defensive end for the New Orleans Saints of the National Football League (NFL). He played college football at California, and was drafted by the Saints in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft.

Craig Robertson (American football)

Craig Robertson (born February 11, 1988) is an American football linebacker for the New Orleans Saints of the National Football League (NFL) He was signed by the Cleveland Browns as an undrafted free agent in 2011. Robertson played college football at North Texas.

Gregg Williams

Gregg Williams (born July 15, 1958) is an American football coach who is the defensive coordinator for the New York Jets of the National Football League. Previously, he was head coach of the Buffalo Bills of the National Football League (NFL), and defensive coordinator of the New Orleans Saints with whom he won Super Bowl XLIV, and the Cleveland Browns, acting as an interim head coach in the 2018 season. Williams is known for running aggressive, attacking 4–3 schemes that put heavy pressure on opposing quarterbacks and for his key role in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal.In March 2012, Williams was suspended from the NFL as a result of his admitted involvement in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal, under which bounties were paid for causing injuries that would take targeted players on opposing teams out of games. Williams' suspension was lifted a year later, and he returned to the NFL.

Helmet-to-helmet collision

Helmet-to-helmet collisions are occurrences in American and Canadian football when two players' helmets make head-to-head contact with a high degree of force. Intentionally causing a helmet-to-helmet collision is a penalty in most football leagues, including many high school leagues. Despite its long association with American football, this type of contact is now considered to be dangerous play by league authorities due to the potential of causing serious injury. Major football leagues, such as the National Football League (NFL), Canadian Football League (CFL), and NCAA, have taken a tougher stance on helmet-to-helmet collisions after the US Congress launched an investigation into the effects repeated concussions have on football players and the new discoveries of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Other possible injuries include head traumas, spinal cord injuries, and even death. Helmet manufacturers are constantly improving their designs in order to best protect their users against injuries from such collisions.The crackdown on helmet-to-helmet collisions has resulted in reappraisals of the sport. An image of two helmets smashing together—which had been a staple for 20 years—was dropped in 2006 from Monday Night Football on ESPN. The NFL also ordered Toyota Motor Company to stop using a similar helmet collision in its advertisements.

James Laurinaitis

James Richard Laurinaitis (born December 3, 1986) is a former American football linebacker who played for the St. Louis Rams and New Orleans Saints of the National Football League (NFL). He played college football at Ohio State, where he was a three-time consensus All-American and won numerous awards. He was drafted by the Rams in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft.

Joe Vitt

Joe Vitt (born August 23, 1954) is an American football coach for the New York Jets of the National Football League. he was the assistant head coach and linebackers coach of the New Orleans Saints of the National Football League (NFL). He was the interim head coach for the New Orleans Saints during the 2012 season and the St. Louis Rams for their last eleven games in 2005.

Jonathan Vilma

Jonathan Polynice Vilma (born April 16, 1982) is a former American football linebacker and current ESPN college football analyst. He played college football at the University of Miami, winning a National Championship in 2001. He would go on to be drafted by the New York Jets in the first round of the 2004 NFL Draft. Vilma won a Super Bowl championship with the New Orleans Saints. In July 2016 he joined ESPN as a college football commentator and studio analyst. Vilma was elected as a member of the Orange Bowl Committee in 2018.

List of "-gate" scandals

This is a list of scandals or controversies whose names include a "-gate" suffix, by analogy with the Watergate scandal, as well as other incidents to which the suffix has (often facetiously) been applied. This list also includes controversies that are widely referred to with a "-gate" suffix, but may be referred to by another more common name (such as the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal). Use of the "-gate" suffix has spread beyond U.S. English to many other countries and languages.

Mickey Loomis

Mickey Loomis is the executive vice president and General Manager of the NFL's New Orleans Saints. He was named NFL executive of the year for 2006. Since June 2012, he is also head of basketball operations for the New Orleans Pelicans of the National Basketball Association.Loomis grew up in Eugene, Oregon and graduated from Willamette High School in 1974, then attended Northwest Christian University in Eugene, where he played basketball. He earned his degree in accounting from the University of Oregon and a master's degree in sports administration from Wichita State University. Before coming to the Saints, Loomis spent 15 years in the Seattle Seahawks organization. Loomis joined the Saints in 2000 and became general manager in 2002. He was with the Saints when they were forced to relocate to Baton Rouge in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and helped rebuild the team afterward, culminating in its victory in Super Bowl XLIV.Loomis was one of the Saints officials to be penalized in 2012 in the aftermath of the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal, in which an NFL investigation found that players were paid bonuses from a pool for their on-field performance, including, allegedly, deliberately trying to knock opposing players out of games. A league investigation found that Saints team owner Tom Benson had ordered Loomis to shut the program down, but Loomis failed to do so. As a result, Loomis was suspended for the first 8 games of the 2012 NFL season.

In April 2012, ESPN's Outside the Lines reported allegations that Loomis had an illegal eavesdropping device that allowed him to listen to real-time playcalls of opposing coaches during the 2002-2004 seasons. Loomis denied the allegation, calling the report "absolutely false", and in August 2012, the Louisiana State Police announced that a four-month investigation had found no evidence to corroborate the allegations.In June 2012, Loomis was named head of basketball operations for the Hornets after Tom Benson bought the team. In this capacity, Loomis is responsible for overseeing interim Pelicans general manager Danny Ferry.

National Football League controversies

The National Football League (NFL) is the premier professional American football league in the United States, and is also one of the major North American professional sports leagues. However, the NFL is not without its share of controversies. Throughout history, everything from questionable championship rulings to team relocation decisions to allegedly criminal behavior by players has been part of the conversation surrounding the NFL. Many of the recent controversies have surrounded NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, player conduct, and/or the league's role in player safety.

Paul Tagliabue

Paul John Tagliabue (; born November 24, 1940) is a former Commissioner of the National Football League. He took the position in 1989 and was succeeded by Roger Goodell, who was elected to the position on August 8, 2006. Tagliabue's retirement took effect on September 1, 2006. He had previously served as a lawyer for the NFL. Tagliabue served as Chairman of Board of Directors of Georgetown University from 2008 to 2015.

Pete Morelli

Peter Danie Morelli (born November 18, 1951) is a former American football official in the National Football League (NFL) since the 1997 NFL season and the president of Saint Mary's High School in Stockton, California. He wore uniform number 135.As an official in the NFL, Morelli is known for working Super Bowl XXXVI in 2002 as a field judge.

Sean Pamphilon

Sean Pamphilon is an American sports television producer turned documentary filmmaker. He produced multiple television features on National Football League player Ricky Williams for Fox Sports and ESPN, and he later directed the Williams documentary, Run Ricky Run, for ESPN's award-winning documentary series 30 for 30 with film partner Royce Toni.In April 2012, he released audio recordings related to the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal of former New Orleans Saints coach Gregg Williams instructing his players to inflict physical harm on their opponents. Pamphilon had access to the Saints locker room while collaborating with former Saints player Steve Gleason on a documentary. Gleason said he and his family retain the rights to the recordings, and Pamphilon released them without permission. Pamphilon said he would not have released the recordings if the story regarding the bounties was not already public. He denied that their contract prohibited posting of the footage and said that he and Gleason had agreed to a third-party mediator, who advised publicly releasing the recordings. "I feel as strongly today as I have from the beginning that the audio speaks for itself and that the public had a right to hear it," Pamphilon said.

Sean Payton

Patrick Sean Payton (born December 29, 1963) is an American football coach and former player who is the current head coach of the New Orleans Saints of the National Football League (NFL). Payton was a quarterback at Naperville Central High School and Eastern Illinois University and played professionally in 1987 and 1988. He began his coaching career as offensive assistant for San Diego State University and had several assistant coaching positions on college and NFL teams before being named as the tenth full-time coach in Saints history in 2006. Payton has always been known for his offensive prowess, having scored more points (2,804) and gained more yards (40,158) than any other team in a coach's first 100 games in NFL history. Payton is currently the 2nd longest active head coach in the NFL, behind the New England Patriots' Bill Belichick, whom has coached them since the 2000 season.

Under Payton's leadership, the Saints made the 2006 NFL playoffs after a 3–13 season in 2005 and advanced to their first NFC Championship appearance in franchise history, Payton won the AP NFL Coach of the Year Award because of this effort. Following the 2009 season, the Saints won their first Super Bowl championship in franchise history. Since joining the Saints as head coach he has helped guide the team to 3 NFC Championship games (2006, 2009, and 2018), an appearance in Super Bowl XLIV, and 7 total playoff births with 5 division titles, making him the most successful coach in Saints franchise history.

On March 21, 2012, Payton was suspended for the entire 2012 NFL season, originally set to take effect April 1, 2012, as a result of his alleged involvement in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal, under which "bounties" were allegedly paid for contact that would "knock out" targeted players on opposing teams. Payton has denied that any program encouraging Saints players to injure opposing players ever existed, even though the NFL claims their evidence proves otherwise. Assistant coach Joe Vitt stated "We had a pay to perform program, just like many NFL teams do, but there was never a bounty program, we didn't ever encourage a pay-to-injure program. That's just not true. We never crossed the line." Payton filed an appeal of his suspension with the league the Friday before it was set to take effect. On April 9, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (who handed down the suspension) denied his appeal; his suspension began on April 16. Goodell reinstated Payton on January 22, 2013.Payton is under contract with the Saints at least until the end of the 2020 season. A previously agreed-upon extension of his contract through 2015 was voided by the NFL. This left his status after the 2012 season unclear until December of that year, when he agreed to a five-year contract that made him the highest paid coach in the history of the NFL. In March 2016, Payton signed a five-year extension with the Saints.

Steve Spagnuolo

Stephen Christopher Spagnuolo (; born December 21, 1959) is an American football coach who is the defensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs of the National Football League (NFL). He rejoined Andy Reid's staff after being a defensive assistant with him from 1999-2006. Spagnuolo went on to win a Super Bowl with the New York Giants as defensive coordinator. Following two seasons in New York, He was the head coach of the St. Louis Rams for 3 seasons, was an assistant with the Baltimore Ravens, had a one season stint with the New Orleans Saints, and then back with the Giants as defensive coordinator in 2015. He was named interim head coach after the firing of former head coach Ben McAdoo on December 4, 2017.

Spagnuolo has also worked as a college football assistant coach for the University of Connecticut, the University of Maine, Lafayette College, Rutgers University, Bowling Green University, and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He also spent time in the original World League of American Football and its successor, NFL Europe.

Will Smith (defensive end)

William Raymond Smith III (July 4, 1981 – April 9, 2016) was an American football defensive end in the National Football League (NFL). He played college football for Ohio State and was drafted by the New Orleans Saints in the first round of the 2004 NFL draft, where he played for the entirety of his career. Smith was shot and killed during an altercation after an alcohol related traffic accident.

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Division championships (7)
Conference championships (1)
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