Football Coordinator Paid Players To Hurt Opponents

Controversy is brewing in the NFL. It centers on a former defensive coordinator who offered his players "bounties" for hurting opponents. The coach, Greg Williams, has worked for the New Orleans Saints and St. Louis Rams. He was expected to meet with NFL officials on Monday. The scandal is sparking outrage from players and fans alike.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. In the NFL, it's no surprise that huge, powerful athletes can get hurt when they collide with each other at full speed. It is surprising if they're paid to injure their opponents with those hits. That's what a report commissioned by the football league reveals. It found that the former defensive coordinator for the New Orleans Saints ran a program that paid players thousands of dollars for big hits. As NPR's Mike Pesca reports, the consequences of the scandal could be far reaching.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: After the New Orleans Saints won their only Super Bowl two years ago, their defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, was exultant. Not only had his team pressured and stymied the great Peyton Manning, they did it via Williams' signature style.

GREGG WILLIAMS: My whole life, I've been trying to speed up peoples' decisions, get people to play faster, get people to play nastier, get people to play tougher or more aggressive.

PESCA: These people who Williams tried to imbue with aggression included, he soon noted, his own sons, top athletes, Williams said, but once just small children.

WILLIAMS: I told their Little League coaches, my kids will play fast. They're going to play nasty. They're going to play tough. Please don't slow them down. Tell the rest of the babies around them to speed up because I'm going to be hot if you slow my kids down.

PESCA: The league has slowed, if not outright halted Williams. He was aware of and at times oversaw a program whereby players on his defense were paid thousands of dollars for big hits. The rewards would go up if opponents were carted off the field. Subsequent news stories indicate Williams oversaw similar programs when he was with the Redskins and Bills. When news of the bounty program broke, many NFL players were quick to opine and tweet that this was nothing new. Players have long been incentivized to deliver big blows. It is the reality of the NFL.

But there were nuances and details of the Saints program that surprised many players. Karl Mecklenburg, a six-time Pro Bowl defender with the Denver Broncos, says he played to win, to survive for his job and for his teammates. He didn't need a cash-for-clobbers program, but he was privy during his playing career to some extra incentivization.

KARL MECKLENBURG: At one point, when I was playing for the Broncos, where the big plays, you know, whether it's a tackle for a loss or a sack or a big hit that changes the momentum of the game, and that's, you know, under the discretion of coaches, those things would be awarded points. And at the end of the year, the person with the most points got a little trophy and got an incentive trip.

PESCA: College teams affix stickers to helmets for big plays. Teams might give you a game ball for a big hit. But in none of those cases is it clear that the intent of the award is to put opponents out of games. That's why Mecklenburg says the league should punish the Saints. That's why Gabe Feldman, director of the Tulane Sports Law Program, says the NFL must aggressively root out a bounty system to keep criminal and civil liability at bay.

GABE FELDMAN: I think it was important for them to come forward, do an investigation and then discipline the involved parties. And I think that would be one of the main reasons why a criminal court wouldn't step in because they'd see this as league business and a reason why a court might not step in and award damages and say this is just part of the game and the league is handling them under their own rules.

PESCA: Part of the game, that is the phrase that the NFL is leaning on as it faces multiple lawsuits over head injuries. The NFL self-preservation depends upon the argument that injuries are part of the game. Were they to countenance bounties, that argument comes crumbling down. Gregg Williams, however, may not be part of the game very long. He left the Saints a few weeks ago to take the defensive coordinator job with the Rams, but he could be suspended for all or part of the upcoming season. Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

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