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Column: NFL bounty hunters have to pay

By Tim Dahlberg
AP Sports Columnist / March 3, 2012
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As paydays go, they weren't bad. A thousand bucks if your guy is carted off the field, $500 extra for a clean knockout.

End someone's season or career? Priceless.

There was a lot to like about the New Orleans Saints offering up cash for big hits. The scheme made for tougher players and helped them on a stirring playoff run that ended with their hands wrapped around the NFL trophy in 2010.

Yes, it left Kurt Warner sprawled for several minutes on the turf in the playoffs two years ago, surer than ever that it was time to hang up his cleats. Brett Favre escaped with a good old fashioned beating, though one pass short of making the Super Bowl.

But, as Mike Tyson loves to say about his sport, football is a hurt business.

Way too much of a hurt business if you listen to former players who often end up sounding like former fighters. The courts are full of concussion-related lawsuits against the NFL and its teams, and former players such as Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett worry publicly that they may end up with dementia or Alzheimer's because of hits they've taken to the head.

So when the NFL was tipped off to the bounty system employed by the Saints, the league had no choice but to put its talented team of investigators on the trail. They looked at 18,000 documents, interviewed scores of players and coaches, and even brought in forensic experts to make sure what they were seeing was the real thing.

It was, and now it's time to make the bounty hunters pay.

Not with fines, because this was so egregious that depleting a few wallets is meaningless. Not with suspensions, either, because missing a few games is almost as meaningless. And taking away draft picks doesn't target the people who need to be targeted.

The people in charge of the scheme put the very foundation of the league in jeopardy. And if NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is to have any kind of credibility on the issue of injured players in the NFL, they need to go away for a long, long time.

Goodell himself indicated Friday that some tough penalties will come for violating the league rule on bounty payments. When they do, they likely will make the sanctions imposed on Bill Belichick and the Patriots for Spygate look tame by comparison.

"It is our responsibility to protect player safety and the integrity of our game, and this type of conduct will not be tolerated," Goodell said. "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."

Just how far the commissioner intends to go, only he knows. But here are a few suggestions in what might be his best chance to end a culture of bounty hunting that has festered underground in the league for decades.

Start by banning former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams from the NFL for life. He's the one who oversaw the scheme to reward players for hurting other players, and New Orleans may not have been the only place he did it. Several Redskins who played under Williams told The Washington Post a similar reward system was in place when Williams -- now with the St. Louis Rams -- was the defensive coordinator there.

Give Williams some credit for immediately apologizing and saying he realized what he did was wrong. Offer him a chance to come back in, say, five years and plead his case for employment again.

But send a message that if you care about your livelihood, you don't pay players extra money to hurt other players.

Next to go should be Saints general manager Mickey Loomis. The NFL said Loomis denied any knowledge of the bounty program when first questioned in 2010 and said if he found it was happening he would put an end to it. The league says Loomis did nothing then and did nothing again earlier this year when Saints owner Tom Benson told him to make sure the payments were stopped.

Tell the Saints they can no longer employ Loomis. Tell Loomis he can sit out a year before trying for another job in the NFL.

And then there's Sean Payton. The coach who led the Saints to their Super Bowl win. The coach the NFL says knew what was going on when the injury pot peaked at $50,000 or more during the 2009 playoff run to the championship game.

The coach who himself was carted off the field in an ironic twist last season after being accidentally leveled on the sidelines by one of his own players.

Give him the same year off that Loomis gets. Let him use the time to think about the difference between hitting hard and hitting to hurt.

Goodell surely didn't want this scandal, not after the NFL came off a triumphant season with labor peace and television contracts wrapped up for much of the next decade. He would have much preferred to bask in the glow of a thrilling Super Bowl and watch proudly as NFL draft talk dominated the offseason.

But it has given him the perfect opportunity to take a stand, a great chance to show he's serious about protecting players. He can be tough, and he should be tough.

Send the message that hitting to hurt no longer pays.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg

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