Today the National Football League (NFL) is scheduled to hear appeals from New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis and assistant head coach Joe Vitt for their roles in a bounty scandal. In case you missed it, the Saints operated a bounty program from 2009 to 2011 that awarded cash payments to players for knock-outs (worth $1,500) and cart-offs (worth $1,000) – plays that resulted in opposing players being forced to leave the game due to injury. The league’s findings and specific details are damning and worth the read.
In an unprecedented response, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Payton for the entire 2012 season without pay, Loomis for the first eight games of the season without pay and Vitt for the first six games without pay. All three individuals are filing appeals, but they are not expected to receive a reduced punishment. As for Gregg Williams, the former Saints defensive coach who jumped this year to the same position with the St. Louis Rams, he is not appealing his indefinite ban from the league. During the investigation, Williams admitted to league officials that he was responsible for running the program.
Keep in mind; the Saints were once considered the “feel good” story of the NFL. The team and city rose from the floods of Hurricane Katrina and a few years later won its first ever Super Bowl. During that championship season, “Saints defensive captain, Jonathan Vilma, offered $10,000 to any player who knocked then- Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre out of the NFC Championship Game.”
Another interesting aspect of the investigation was Payton’s repeated denial of the program and how he encouraged coaches to lie to NFL officials. Based on the facts of the case (emails, statements, etc.), Payton should have been suspended indefinitely.
Payton had ample opportunities to end the program, but instead he focused on making sure his two defensive assistants, Williams and Vitt, had their “ducks in a row” and were able to mislead investigators. It was also noted that Payton received an email from a close associate that stated in part, “PS – Gregg Williams put me down for $5,000 on Rogers (sic).” The associate was obviously referring to Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rogers and the bounty was eventually confirmed by Payton.
From a PR perspective, the Saints image has obviously suffered, as the team lied to league officials and condoned intentionally injuring players. While the Saints missed plenty of opportunities to make it right, the organization’s public statements following the announcement were adequate. However, star quarterback Drew Brees’ tweet immediately after the NFL’s ruling was absurd.
Brees tweeted, “I am speechless. Sean Payton is a great man, coach, and mentor. The best there is. I need to hear an explanation for this.”
First, the explanation was in the detailed, lengthy press release issued by the NFL. Second, it was a three-year investigation, so it cannot be that shocking. Third, Payton was told to put a stop to it and didn’t. Don’t get me wrong; Brees is regarded by many as a great person on and off the field, but he got it wrong.
In closing, at least the NFL got it right, as the punishment fit the crime. For the Saints to regain the trust of the league, fellow players and public, they need to seriously ramp-up their own PR efforts about player safety and sportsmanship. At a time when player safety (especially head injuries) is paramount, the Saints should help lead the way with additional programs, community events, etc. about safety and sportsmanship.