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'Hits-for-cash' bounty scandal rocks National Football League

By Ed Lavandera, CNN Correspondent
updated 9:20 PM EST, Mon March 5, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NFL: As many as 27 players took part in the "bounty" program
  • Former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams admits to paying for hits
  • Williams: "We knew it was wrong while we were doing it."
  • Investigation grows to include Washington Redskins

Dallas (CNN) -- The far-reaching investigation into a "bounty" scandal is reverberating across the National Football League and threatens to tarnish the loveable image of the New Orleans Saints franchise.

"It's going to be a huge scandal," senior Sports Illustrated writer Peter King told CNN. "This will give the NFL a chance to come down on something that's sort of been a whisper campaign and a shadow story for a long time."

The NFL said as many as 27 players were paid up to $1,500 for vicious hits that would knock opposing players out of the game or force them to be carried off the football field.

According to the NFL, players paid into a "bounty" fund, that reached as high as $50,000 and Saints' defensive coordinator Gregg Williams would dole out the payments based on game performance.

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On Monday, NFL security officials continued interviewing coaches and players across the league. According to NFL.com, league security officials met with Williams, who now works as the defensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams.

Williams admits carrying out the cash-for-performance scheme.

"It was a terrible mistake," Williams said in a statement to the Times-Picayune newspaper in New Orleans. "And we knew it was wrong while we were doing it. Instead of getting caught up in it, I should have stopped it."

Many former players say "bounty" incentive programs have existed in professional football for a long time. Players, who question why this scandal is shocking so many fans, say football is a violent sport built around punishing your opponent.

LaVar Arrington, a former Washington Redskins linebacker, now writes the "Hard Hits" blog for the Washington Post. Arrington said the best players in the history of football have always brought a "seek and destroy mentality" to the game.

"So in a culture where it's an unwritten part of the game to get the best opposing player out of it, that's what players have done and still do to this day. The fact that there's such outrage appears to be a bit strange to me," Arrington wrote on his blog Monday.

The NFL said the "bounty" program is a clear violation of rules intended to protect "player safety and competitive integrity."

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell hasn't announced what kind of disciplinary action the league will take, but it's clear the punishment could include "fines and suspensions."

The NFL said that in addition to Williams, sanctions could be brought against New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton.

Peter King: Goodell to make an example of Saints

The NFL statement said Payton was not a direct participant but "failed to stop the bounty program" after he was made aware of the allegations.

Saints' general manager Micky Loomis could face harsh punishment as well. The league statement said Loomis was told by Saints owner Tom Benson to end the program and never followed through. Loomis also "denied any knowledge of a bounty program" according to the league statement.

The "bounty" program investigation is also growing beyond the Saints' organization. The Washington Post reported the NFL is also investigating the Washington Redskins. Williams coached with the Redskins during 2004-2007 seasons.

And Coy Wire, who played for Williams during his stint with the Buffalo Bills, told CNN he was interviewed by NFL security officials on Monday and questioned about "performance incentive" programs.

Wire said Williams was one of the best coaches he's ever played for but got carried away and let the Saints' "bounty" program go too far. Wire is now a motivational speaker and worries about how this scandal will influence young kids learning to play football.

"You want an edge mentally. You want to break your opponent's will to win. In football the best way to break their will is to break their body," Wire said. "We really have to figure out where to draw the line and what kind of rules and regulations need to be drawn up to make sure that nothing goes too far anymore so that we can make a safer game for future players."

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