NEW YORK - New Orleans Saints players and at least one assistant coach maintained a bounty pool of up to $50,000 the last three seasons to reward game-ending injuries inflicted on opposing players, including Brett Favre and Kurt Warner, the NFL said yesterday.
The NFL said the pool amounts reached their height in 2009, the year the Saints won the Super Bowl.
The league said between 22 and 27 defensive players were involved in the program and that it was administered by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, with the knowledge of coach Sean Payton.
Williams apologized for his role: “It was a terrible mistake, and we knew it was wrong while we were doing it,’’ he said.
No punishments have been handed out, but they could include suspensions, fines, and loss of draft picks. The NFL said the findings were corroborated by multiple, independent sources during an investigation by the league’s security department.
Players contributed cash to the pool, at times large amounts, and in some cases the money pledged was directed against a specific person, the NFL said.
“The payments here are particularly troubling because they involved not just payments for ‘performance,’ but also for injuring opposing players,’’ commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. “The bounty rule promotes two key elements of NFL football: player safety and competitive integrity.’’
Payoffs included $1,500 for a “knockout’’ and $1,000 for a “cart-off,’’ with payouts doubling or tripling during the playoffs. All payouts for specific performances in a game, including interceptions or causing fumbles, are against NFL rules. The NFL also warns teams against such practices before each season.
“It is our responsibility to protect player safety and the integrity of our game, and this type of conduct will not be tolerated,’’ Goodell said. “We have made significant progress in changing the culture with respect to player safety and we are not going to relent. We have more work to do and we will do it.’’
Asked about potential criminal charges, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said: “We believe that any violation of league rules should and will be handled by the commissioner.’’
The league absolved Saints owner Tom Benson of any blame, but said the investigation showed Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis knew about the program.
“Although head coach Sean Payton was not a direct participant in the funding or administration of the program, he was aware of the allegations, did not make any detailed inquiry or otherwise seek to learn the facts, and failed to stop the program,’’ the league said.
When informed about it earlier this year, the NFL said Benson directed Loomis to “ensure that any bounty program be discontinued immediately.’’ However, the NFL’s report said evidence showed Loomis didn’t carry out Benson’s directions and that in 2010, Loomis denied any knowledge of a bounty program.
Williams, hired as defensive coordinator by the Rams in January, is known for coaching aggressive defenses that try to intimidate opponents. He has said he won’t punish players if they’re flagged for late hits or unnecessary roughness, as long as the penalty resulted from aggression, not “stupidity.’’
“Instead of getting caught up in it, I should have stopped it. I take full responsibility for my role,’’ Williams said yesterday. “I am truly sorry. I have learned a hard lesson and I guarantee that I will never participate in or allow this kind of activity to happen again.’’
The NFL found no evidence of other bounty programs, but several Redskins told the Washington Post that Williams had a similar system as defensive coordinator for the team.
Former defensive end Philip Daniels, now Washington’s director of player development, said he believed Williams paid off big hits with fines collected from players for being late to meetings or practices.
“Rather than pocket that money or whatever, he would redistribute it to players who had good games or good practices,’’ said Daniels, who added the most he received was $1,500 for a four-sack game in 2005.
The NFL’s most infamous bounty case occurred in 1989 when Eagles coach Buddy Ryan was accused of putting a bounty on Cowboys players.
On Thanksgiving Day, Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson accused Ryan of putting a bounty on quarterback Troy Aikman and placekicker Luis Zendejas before a 27-0 Philadelphia victory. Ryan and his players denied the charges and commissioner Paul Tagliabue found no evidence of wrongdoing.
The NFL began its Saints investigation in early 2010 after allegations surfaced that quarterbacks Warner of Arizona and Favre of Minnesota had been targeted. After interviewing several Saints who denied the bounty program existed and after the player who originally made the allegations recanted, the league couldn’t prove anything.
However, Goodell said the NFL “recently received significant and credible new information and the investigation was re-opened during the latter part of the 2011 season.’’