The notorious New Orleans bounty scandal, known as Bountygate, involved players and coaches who created a pool that paid bonuses for deliberate injuries. Up to 27 Saints team members participated in the bounty system from 2009 until the scheme was exposed in 2011. The National Football League (NFL), upon release of its finding in March 2012, suspended several coaches and players and levied a $500,000 fine against the organization.
Saints head coach Sean Payton, who the NFL claimed knew about the bounty system but failed to act, was suspended for the entire 2012 season. The team finished the 2012 season with a record of 6 wins and 10 losses, losing their final game of the year at home to division foe Carolina Panthers 44-38. Although the return of Payton in 2013 has resulted in a 7-2 start after 9 games, there are lingering effects for the team of the bounty scandal and how teams view the violent nature of the game, particularly in light of a more recent controversy involving the Miami Dolphins.
How Bounty Systems Worked
Gregg Williams, whose 29-year career in football coaching spanned high school, college, and even a three-year stint as head coach of the Buffalo Bills, has been attributed as the architect of the bounty system. Although it was alleged that the system had its genesis in other teams coached by Williams, notably the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans and the Washington Redskins, no investigations brought to light these rumored allegations. Williams devised the system as an incentive-based reward system to encourage his players to play in an aggressive manner.
Bounty systems, like the one that led to the scandal in New Orleans, are reported to be a common occurrence in the NFL. Participants place money in a pool that initially begins at $2,000. To claim the bonus, a player needed to knock the opposing quarterback out of the game. If this does not happen, the money rolls over to the next game and doubles. It continues to increase until the quarterback (or targeted player) is taken out by the players participating in the pool. What distinguished the system operated by the Saints was the level of involvement of coaches as well as the level of organizational sophistication.
Players and Coaches Involved in the System
Along with Williams and head coach Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis and assistant head coach Joe Vitt were involved in the system. Players specifically singled out by the NFL as “ringleaders” of the bounty system were Scott Fujita (linebacker, now retired), Anthony Hargrove (defensive end, a free agent), Will Smith (defensive end still with the team), and Jonathan Vilma (linebacker). Vilma was a central figure in the scandal. It was Vilma who helped create the bounty system with Williams. Vilma offered a bounty of $10,000 on Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner in a playoff game in 2009 (the year the Saints won the Super Bowl) and the same amount in the NFC Championship game on Minnesota Vikings quarterback and future Hall of Famer Brett Favre.
Impact and the Long-Term Effect of the Bounty System
Williams was hit with an indefinite suspension from the league for his leading role in the bounty scandal. Payton sat out the 2012 season while general manager Mickey Loomis was suspended from participating in the first 8 games of the 2012 season and Joe Vitt from the first 6 games. A memo was sent by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to the teams reiterating the league’s position on non-contract bonuses and the use of “bounty” systems to encourage hard play.
Darius Maitland is a freelance writer focusing on Entertainment Law, Pro Sports Injury, Business Law, Sports Controversy and other neat issues.
Image credit goes to cardinals17.