Roger Goodell is serious. In a bid to reinforce the NFL's hard line on player safety, the league's commissioner has severely punished the New Orleans Saints for their "pay-for-performance" bounty system over the past three seasons. The system awarded cash to defensive players for targeting and hitting certain opponents.
Goodell suspended head coach Sean Payton without pay for the entire 2012 season; former Saints and current St Louis Rams defensive co-ordinator Gregg Williams indefinitely; Saints general manager Mickey Loomis for the first eight games of the season; and assistant head coach Joe Vitt for the first six games. The Saints, who won the Super Bowl in 2009, were also fined $500,000 (£320,000) and were stripped of their second-round draft picks in both this year's and next year's draft.
"We are all accountable and responsible for player health and safety and the integrity of the game," Goodell said. "We will not tolerate conduct or a culture that undermines those priorities. No one is above the game or the rules that govern it."
Saints players supplied their own money, contributing to a pool where it was paid out to reward hits on opponents. Defensive players were paid $1,500 (£950) for "knockouts" and $1,000 (£650) for "cart-offs", as they targeted star NFL players such as Brett Favre, Aaron Rogers and Kurt Warner. Their rewards doubled in cash during the play-offs, and reached as high as $50,000 (£32,000) during their 2009 championship season.
"To our fans, the NFL and the rest of our league, we offer our sincere apology and take full responsibility for these serious violations," the Saints said in a statement released earlier this week. "It has always been the goal of the New Orleans Saints to create a model franchise and to impact our league in a positive manner. There is no place for bounties in our league and we reiterate our pledge that this will never happen again."
The harsh penalty is in line with league rules but is also part of the NFL's wider bid to address the risk of players suffering concussion. The league is dealing with 39 lawsuits from 850 former players claiming the NFL has failed in the past to protect its athletes.
"Wanting their players on the field instead of training tables, and in an attempt to protect a multi-billion-dollar business, the NFL has purposefully attempted to obfuscate the issue and has repeatedly refuted the connection between concussions and brain injury to the disgust of Congress, which has blasted the NFL's handling of the issue on multiple occasions," the lawsuit alleges.
The NFL is also eager to stamp out bounty systems as it fears that such developments are contributing towards a perception that the sport, whilst increasingly popular, is becoming more dangerous for the players.
"I'm starting to question, as a father, 'Do I want my kids to play football at all'?" two-time NFL MVP and bounty target Kurt Warner said this week. "With concussions and the violence issues, now you start hearing things about bounties. It is the most popular game right now, and everybody loves it. But I am really starting to hear that from parents. I just really believe the commissioner is trying to change that perception for the future of our game."
With the Saints punishment, Goodell has sent a message, not just to the NFL, but throughout the sport.
"The game doesn't need to be played this way," Goodell said. "We think that while it is a strong message, it's an important one to send – that we need to protect our players."