On Saturday nights during the 2009 NFL season, Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, the lightning-rod leader of a feisty unit, would stand in front of his men holding white envelopes filled with cash—bonuses for their performances the previous week. As Williams called up player after player, handing them envelopes with amounts ranging from $100 for a special teams tackle inside the opponents' 20-yard line to $1,500 for knocking a foe out of the game, a chant would rise up from the fired-up defenders:
"Give it back! Give it back! Give it back!"
Many players would do just that, to beef up the pot and make the stakes bigger as the season went on. The NFL alleges that by the time New Orleans reached the NFC Championship Game against the Vikings on Jan. 24, 2010, the stakes had risen to the point that middle linebacker and defensive captain Jonathan Vilma personally offered a $10,000 bounty to any player who knocked Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre out of the game. (SI's attempts to reach Vilma were unsuccessful.)
Over four quarters that Sunday at the Superdome, Favre was hit repeatedly and hard. The league later fined Saints defensive linemen Bobby McCray and Anthony Hargrove a total of $25,000 for three separate improper hits, and NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira said the Saints should have been flagged for a brutal high-low mashing by McCray and defensive lineman Remi Ayodele in the third quarter. Favre suffered a badly sprained left ankle on that play and had to be helped off the field. On the New Orleans sideline, Hargrove excitedly slapped hands with teammates, saying, "Favre is out of the game! Favre is done! Favre is done!"
An on-field microphone directed toward the sideline caught an unidentified defender saying, "Pay me my money!"
Favre returned to the game but was hobbled. The Saints won 31--28 in overtime, and two weeks later they defeated the Colts 31--17 in Super Bowl XLIV, a victory for an embattled city that was one of the most uplifting moments in recent NFL history. But the excessive hits on Favre in the title game, and on Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner a week earlier in New Orleans's 45--14 divisional playoff victory, prompted an off-and-on two-year league investigation that culminated last Friday in a caustic and blistering report implicating Williams and Saints players in a pay-for-performance program that operated far outside the bounds of league rules. The report also said that general manager Mickey Loomis was made aware of the allegations about the program in early 2010, denied knowledge of it and said he would ensure that no such program was in place, and that coach Sean Payton was also aware of the allegations but failed to look into them. (Loomis and Payton did not respond to repeated requests for comment over the weekend.) The discipline handed down to Williams, Payton, Loomis and several players will likely dwarf the Patriots' punishment in the infamous Spygate scandal in 2007. In that case the league fined the Patriots and coach Bill Belichick $750,000 and docked New England a first-round pick for illegally videotaping opposing sidelines. Judging by the outrage emanating from the NFL's New York City offices over the weekend, the Saints' sanctions could be closer to the yearlong suspensions given to stars Alex Karras and Paul Hornung in 1963 for gambling. Discipline is expected to be announced within the month.
For commissioner Roger Goodell, player safety has become a top priority, and nothing could undermine that more than cash incentives for players to injure their opponents. One source close to Goodell said the commissioner's reaction to the initial reports of the bounties in the 2009 playoffs was, "God forbid this is true. This will be earth-shattering."
In football circles, it is. The NFL charges that over the past three seasons, between 22 and 27 Saints participated in a bounty program administered by Williams and by leading players that paid defenders for specific achievements on the field, including injuring opponents. The program reportedly paid $1,500 for knocking a player out of a game and $1,000 for a "cart-off"—forcing a player to be helped off the field—as well as lesser rewards for individual plays. During the playoffs, the league said, the sums increased. Such bounties not only circumvent the NFL's salary cap, as extra off-the-books compensation, but also violate the NFL's constitution and by-laws and the collective bargaining agreement, all of which state, "No bonuses or awards may be offered or paid for on-field misconduct (for example, personal fouls to, or injuries inflicted on, opposing players)."
In a statement on Friday, Goodell said, "It is our responsibility to protect player safety and the integrity of our game, and this type of conduct will not be tolerated. We have made significant progress in changing the culture with respect to player safety, and we are not going to relent."
Culture change has been a mantra in the NFL since a brutal weekend of football in October 2010, during which Rutgers defensive tackle Eric LeGrand was paralyzed on a kickoff return, and a series of violent NFL collisions focused attention on concussive hits in the pro game. In addition, more than 50 former NFL players have filed lawsuits against the league, alleging that it didn't do enough to prevent concussions and head trauma during their playing days.