Bounty hunt is on
Simon Veness looks at the fall-out from the New Orleans 'bounty' scandal, which has rocked the NFL.
Last Updated: 06/03/12 3:18pm
For those who grew up in the 1970s and remember the TV adverts for a certain Mars chocolate bar, the 'Bounty hunters' was simply an invitation to sample a 'taste of paradise.'
But mention the word 'Bounty' over here at the moment and you are certainly not on a sun-kissed tropical island surrounded by coconut-filled chocolate. In fact, former New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams may FEEL like he is on an island, but it is far from tropical and anything but comfortable.
Yes, we are now four days into the 'pay-to-maim' scandal that is rocking the NFL to its core and threatening to destabilise not just the Saints but possibly St Louis (where Williams is currently employed), Buffalo and Washington (where he previously plied his trade) as well.
The details are particularly lurid and seem like they could come straight from the script of Friday Night Lights or The Longest Yard (original 1974 version, not the yucky remake with Adam Sandler).
Basically, we are talking about Williams putting together a 'bonus' system that rewarded his defensive players for hits that put opposition players out of action.
There was $1,000 if a player was carted off and a whopping $1,500 if that player didn't return. Some estimates put the highest 'bounty' offered at $50,000 for the NFC Championship game against Minnesota in 2010.
Vikings fans will probably well remember that Brett Favre was turned into a human piñata in that game, the victim of a particularly brutal series of hits, several of which were borderline illegal and left the veteran star with memories that probably still cause him nightmares. Not insignificantly, he was never the same player the following season.
To hear stories that Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma had ponied up the little amount of $10,000 "for anyone who could knock Favre out of the game" is to raise the hackles of not just every Minnesota follower but some senior league figures as well.
And they don't come much more senior than Commissioner Roger Goodell, who takes the subject of player safety and health issues not so much as seriously but crusade-like.
The only pronouncement we have heard from 'The Commish' so far was the one statement that: "The payments here are particularly troubling because they involved not just payments for 'performance' but also for injuring opposing players. The bounty rule promotes two key elements of NFL football: player safety and competitive integrity.
"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. We have more work to do and we will do it."
Memo to Williams, and all those implicated in this issue - Be afraid, be very afraid.
If you thought the punishment of Bill Belichick and New England in the wake of the 'Spygate' affair five years ago (a total of $750,000 in fines and the loss of the Patriots' first-round draft pick) was severe, it will be absolutely nothing compared to the disciplinary whirlwind that's about to hit Williams and Co.
And the 'And Co' in this instance goes all the way to Saints head coach Sean Payton and general manager Micky Loomis, as well as up to 27 players, including Vilma and former star Scott Fujita, now at Cleveland.
The NFL's 'inside sources' are currently in overdrive and all are hinting at "unprecedented" measures to mete out justice to those involved. Suspensions of at least half a season, along with heavy fines, are likely to be the order of the day. And, if Williams himself gets off with less than a full-season ban, he can consider himself lucky.
Of course, there are also the hard-bitten league old-timers who opine that the bounty idea is nothing new and is just part and parcel of the sport's macho (and violent) culture.
Some hark back to the controversy surrounding then-Philadelphia head coach Buddy Ryan and 'Bounty Bowl' against the Dallas Cowboys in 1989. Others insist it has been going on since the beginning of gridiron time and will never be stamped out.
But that is to overlook the state of NFL affairs in the 21st century, the increasingly serious case of the treatment of concussions and the increasing number of lawsuits against the league by past players claiming they are suffering serious medical issues as a result of concussion damage.
This is the 'new' caring NFL, where head-hunters are heavily fined rather than feted and serious illegal hits now carry the threat of suspensions rather than slap-on-the-wrist financial penalties.
It is the very worst climate in which to be exposed as someone who operates outside league law and, while it may take a week or two for the inquiry to get to the bottom of Williams' web of illegal payments, it will spare no-one - not even the darling of New Orleans, Sean Payton himself.
Saints owner Tom Benson - who is reported to have told Loomis to put an end to the bounty programme, only to be ignored - is said to feel "betrayed" by the sequence of events at his club, who will be host to Super Bowl XLVII next February, it should not be forgotten.
Now, with the league's disciplinary mechanism moving inexorably into place, it is going to seem anything but a 'taste of paradise' for these latter day bounty-hunters.