By JARED SHELLY, senior editor/web editor of Risk & Insurance®
As players in the National Football League have gotten bigger, faster and stronger, the tackles in the game have gotten harder and the injuries have become more devastating. While football remains America's favorite spectator sport, concussions suffered by athletes are getting more attention. Some ex-players are facing so many health problems that they've filed class-action lawsuits against the league to recoup workers' compensation benefits.
Led by Commissioner Roger Goodell, the league has recently been priding itself on putting player safety first, penalizing and fining players for hits to the head and on defenseless quarterbacks. Goodell has also urged players to use newly designed helmets that offer better protection against concussions.
So when news broke that the New Orleans Saints players paid into a $50,000 pool rewarding players who caused opponent injuries, it flew in the face of the image of a safer game that the NFL had been trying to sell to its fans. Complicating matters is that plenty of ex-players, pundits and industry insiders said that such a "bounty program" was part of the status quo and such programs had been in the league for years.
The Saints defensive players were paid by their teammates $1,000 for "knockouts" (knocking a player out of the game), while "cart-offs" (injuring someone so badly that they need to be carted off the field) garnered $1,500, according to news reports. They were also paid for big defensive plays like fumble recoveries and interceptions. Rewards were doubled or tripled during the playoffs.
Former Saints Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams (now holding the same position with the St. Louis Rams) has since been called to a meeting with league officials. He is said to have coordinated the program and the league is investigating if he ran similar programs while defensive coordinator for the Washington Redskins and as head coach of the Buffalo Bills.
Head Coach Sean Payton -- the darling of the NFL after winning the Saints won the Super Bowl in 2009 -- has admitted to knowing about the practice and failing to do anything to stop it.
One NFL insider, who spoke to Risk & Insurance® on condition of anonymity, said that a bounty for injuring players is nothing new. In fact, he thinks it happens all the time.
"Everyone thinks it's common, someone just finally got busted," this person said.
Dan Burns, president of sports insurer Pro Financial Services LLC, based in Schaumburg, Ill. said he's been receiving calls from worried underwriters since the scandal broke, but has been telling them all the same thing: there's no way a bounty program will increase injury rates.
"It's a publicity nightmare but I don't think that any particular player was hurt because of a bounty system," said Burns. "They would have tried to hurt Kurt Warner or Brett Favre without the bounty. The players are savvy. They know they have the best chance to win when the other team's best player is not on the field. They've been trained to hit each other hard since age six."
Since the news broke of the Saints bounty scheme, ex-players interviewed on talk radio shows haven't been denying getting paid bounties for injuring other players.
Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott (who played mostly with the San Francisco 49ers) said recently that cash rewards for devastating hits were common in the 1980s and 1990s. He said they were often doled out for big plays of any type.
One of the more well-publicized instances of players allegedly being offered money to injure other players occurred on Thanksgiving Day in 1989, when the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys played in what became known as the "Bounty Bowl". On that day, Eagles coach Buddy Ryan allegedly told linebacker Jesse Small to deliver a hard block on Cowboys kicker Luis Zendejas during a kickoff. (Normally, the kicker goes unblocked.) Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson said after the game that there was a $200 bounty on Zendejas (a former Eagle) and a $500 bounty on Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman.
Paying professional players to injure each other in a violent game could lead to liability on the part of teams that knew hits were ordered on players that suffered career ending injuries. When the practice of offering rewards, even praise for injuring other people, trickles down to the high school and college levels, the potential liability would increase all the more. While it's not likely that coaches at those levels are paying players for injuries, they could be incentivizing them to hurt opposing players in other ways, such as giving them a sticker on their helmets or some simple congratulations.
"That can mean more than money to a 10th grader," said a source.
And the consequences could be dire. At least five high school football players died in 2011, one from a brain injury sustained during a game.
While Roger Goodell has a reputation for delivering steep financial penalties and long suspensions, he is expected to doll out the toughest penalties yet for the Saints bounty program. Not only will it set an example to the league that incentivizing injury is no longer welcome in the NFL but also it will also help the league protect itself in its existing litigation with ex-players who claim that the NFL is responsible for their injuries and should be paying for their health and workers' compensation benefits.
"It would be one thing if it was a player trying to hurt another player," said the insider, "but if they are being incentivized by a coach, that's devastating for the NFL."
March 13, 2012
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