NFL bounties amount to incentive system run amok

Published 2:31 am Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Associated Press


To Hall of Fame defensive back Ronnie Lott, the thousands of dollars New Orleans Saints players were paid under their bounty system from 2009-11 is not all that different from the helmet stickers handed out at lower levels of the game.

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Little rewards for big plays are as much a part of football as runs and passes.

“I never played the game to take away somebody’s livelihood. Have I hurt people? Yes. I got paid to make interceptions. I got paid to cause fumbles. And I got paid to make big hits,” said Lott, who was with the 49ers, Raiders and Jets during his NFL career from 1981-94.

“It goes back to when I was 10. Somebody said that if you did one of those things, you would get a sticker on your helmet. In college, they gave you that recognition if you did well,” Lott said in a telephone interview Monday. “So, no. I’m not really surprised by it.”

Nor, it seems, should anyone.

“The fact that guys in a football locker room would talk about and reward each other when they take one of their opponents out of the game — that’s not surprising at all. It probably happens from the high school level on up. This is not an odd thing. Now the cash rewards and the coach approval? That formalizes it and takes it to another level,” said Jay Coakley, professor emeritus in the sociology department at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.

“But we shouldn’t be surprised at all that the football culture would give rise to someone wanting to take another player out, even if there weren’t something extra on the line,” Coakley added. “That’s just obvious.”

Commissioner Roger Goodell summoned former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to meet with NFL investigators Monday to discuss whether he also offered bounties while working for other teams. Goodell was not at the meeting.

After the league made its investigation public Friday, Williams admitted to, and apologized for, running a bounty pool of up to $50,000 over the last three seasons, rewarding players for knocking targeted opponents out of games. The league now wants to know whether Williams — who recently left the Saints to become defensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams — ran a similar scheme while a head coach or assistant with the Titans, Redskins, Jaguars and Bills.

Current Redskins linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, who played under Williams in Washington, said a player could get rewarded for knocking a player out of a game with a clean hit, but only after the fact — not as a pre-planned “bounty.” Sometimes players wrote each other checks for such plays.

“It wasn’t always Coach Williams” who paid up, Alexander said.

Several players described their profession as ripe for this to happen: a violent workplace with plenty of cash floating around.

“Everybody knows those things have been around. Some people just unfortunately got caught with their hand in the cookie jar,” said Kyle Turley, an offensive lineman from 1998-07 for the Saints, Rams and Chiefs and one of hundreds of former players who are plaintiffs in concussion-related lawsuits against the league. “It happens a lot on special teams, where they prey on those young guys — the ‘expendables’ as I like to call them — who want some extra money or want to prove their worth so they can stick around longer.”

Think of it as an incentive system run amok.

“A lot of business firms try that sort of thing, whether it’s for rewarding high performance among employees or sales quotes or innovations,” University of Chicago sports economist Allen Sanderson said. “This isn’t all that much different, other than that it involves a little more pain and suffering.”

Several players have said the Saints weren’t the only team with such a system. Others have described extra cash doled out for interceptions or fumbles or blocked kicks; that is against NFL rules, too. Turley recalled contributing to such funds himself, and described seeing an assistant coach — he wouldn’t say who — open a briefcase and pull out wads of cash to toss to players after a victory.

“Every team had their deal,” Turley said.

Al Smith, a Houston Oilers linebacker from 1987-96, said the biggest payout he ever collected from a player-generated bonus fund was “$500 or something like that for a big hit. … It was enough to go on a good date.”

His position coach for his final three seasons? Williams. But Smith said that as far as he knew, Williams never contributed money to the Oilers’ pool.

The NFL absolved Saints owner Tom Benson of blame, but determined that general manager Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton knew about the team’s program. A Saints official told The Associated Press on Monday that Benson is “110 percent behind his guys,” and that the bond among the owner, GM and coach “could not be stronger.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is still ongoing.

Punishment for the Saints could include suspensions, fines and taking away draft picks.

“I know it’s going to be pretty severe. Commissioner Goodell is going to have to do something to set an example,” former NFL player and head coach Herm Edwards said. “But I don’t think anybody should lose a job over this, by any stretch of the imagination.”

Hall of Fame tailback Tony Dorsett, who, like Turley, is a former player suing the NFL and its teams, wonders what all the fuss is about.

“I think a little bit too much is being made out of it, personally,” Dorsett said. “If it was me, and I’m a defensive player, and I’m playing against the Dallas Cowboys, and Tony Dorsett happens to be one of their best players, it would be to our best advantage to get him out of the game. If it’s within the rules of tackling and contact, so be it. I don’t think it’s that big of a deal. … They’re not telling a guy to mangle somebody or kill somebody. It’s: ‘Get him out of the game.”’

That said, Dorsett also believes it’s important to make sure players aren’t allowed back in games if they are hurt. He and other ex-players say more should have been done in the past to warn about concussions and more can be done now to help retired players deal with mental and physical problems they attribute to their days in the NFL.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello has discussed bounties in the context of the league’s “responsibility to protect player safety and the integrity of the game.”

While Gabe Feldman, a law professor and director of the Tulane Sports Law Program, said there isn’t really a direct legal connection between the lawsuits and the NFL’s handling of the bounty issue.

“But certainly from a league image — league perception — perspective, it’s connected,” Feldman said. “It gets to what reasonable steps the league took, or has taken, to prevent unnecessary injury, and what knowledge the league has about risks of injury.”

Feldman doesn’t expect any criminal or civil legal action specifically tied to the bounty system, whether criminal (law enforcement authorities pursuing cases against someone involved in cash-for-hits plans) or civil (players who were injured by hits that earned bonus pay).

“They’re difficult cases to bring, because it’s hard to prove the injury was caused by a tackle with specific intent to injure, rather than a regular tackle,” Feldman explained. “We all know injuries are a part of football. There can’t be legal liability anytime there is an injury. Otherwise, you can’t have football.”


AP Pro Football Writer Barry Wilner, AP National Writer Nancy Armour, and AP Sports Writers Brett Martel, Joseph White and Teresa M. Walker contributed to this report.