New Orleans Saints Bounties
In 2012, the New Orleans Saints football program admitted to the existence of a “bounty” program in which players were paid bonuses to hit players from the opposing team so as to knock the other player out of the game (CNN, 2012; see also New Orleans Saints, 2012). Football is a contact sport, but creating financial incentives to intentionally injure opposing players is going too far. This practice is morally reprehensible; it would be bad enough for a player on his own initiative to try to hurt an opponent so badly that opponent would have to leave the game, but to institutionalize this practice by paying players bonuses for engaging in unsportsmanlike conduct deserves severe condemnation.
CNN (2012) reported on the accusations about the bounty program leveled against the New Orleans Saints football organization:
The National Football League reported Friday that the Saints paid defensive players a bounty for injuring opponents, as well as making interceptions and fumble recoveries, during the 2009–2011 seasons. The program involved as many as 27 players and at least one assistant coach, the league concluded. The league said the program was administered by then-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, with knowledge of other coaches. Players regularly contributed cash to a pool, which may have topped $50,000 at its peak. The players were paid $1,500 for a “knockout,” when an opposing player was not able to return to the game, and $1,000 for a “cart-off,” when an opposing player had to be carried off the field. In some cases, particular players on the opposing team were targeted.
This scandal damaged the reputation of the New Orleans Saints football team. Sports Illustrated (2012) declared, “Make no mistake: the New Orleans bounty saga will go down as one of the worst chapters in NFL history.” The team's image was clearly damaged.
The New Orleans Saints responded with image repair discourse. Head Coach Sean Payton and General Manager Mickey Loomis issued a statement, saying they accepted “full responsibility” for this program, which “happened under our watch” (CNN, 2012). They acknowledged that these were “serious violations, and we understand the negative impact it has had on our game” (CNN, 2012). These statements illustrate mortification: Payton and Loomis admitted that an offensive action had occurred and they accepted responsibility for it.
Although the head coach and general manager accepted responsibility themselves, they were quick to deny that the Saints' owner Tom Benson was involved in the bounty program. Payton and Loomis said they were “sorry for the 'undue hardship' the violations had caused Benson, 'who had nothing to do with this activity'” (CNN, 2012). This can be considered a (brief) instance of third party image repair, where one party (Payton and Loomis) issues an image repair effort on behalf of a third party (Benson; see chapter 7 for more on third party image repair).
Payton and Loomis also made use of corrective action, declaring, “Both of us have made it clear within our organization that this will never happen again, and make that same promise to the NFL and most importantly to all of our fans” (CNN, 2012). Saints owner Tom Benson said that “the team cooperated with the [NFL's] investigation” (CNN, 2012).
This scandal also tarnished the National Football League's reputation. Sports Illustrated pointed out that “the backdrop of this story is the 1,200 or so former NFL players who are in the process of suing the league over concussion and head-trauma issues” (2012). The possibility that some of these injuries might be intentional rather than accidental makes the problem even worse. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell sent a message that this kind of misconduct would not be tolerated, a form of corrective action for the league (not just for the New Orleans Saints). Goodell suspended four players for 31 games in 2012; Jonathan Vilma, who was reported to have been the key instigator in the bounty program, was suspended for the entire season. Former defensive coordinator for the Saints Gregg Williams was suspended indefinitely; Head Coach Sean Payton was suspended for a year; General Manager Mickey Loomis was suspended for eight games; and Assistant Head Coach Joe Vitt received a six-game suspension (Sports Illustrated, 2012).
This image repair effort was not particularly impressive. Mortification and corrective action are appropriate responses, but the idea of paying bounties to injure players is simply not justifiable. Apologizing and stopping this offensive behavior was the right thing to do, but still the bounty program was simply wrong. The game of football will continue, and the New Orleans Saints will continue playing it. However, the bounty scandal was a large bump in the road that required image repair discourse from both the Saints and the NFL to navigate. It may take some time for the damaged images to recover.