Saints Penalized By NFL For 'Bounty' Scheme

Robert Siegel speaks with James Varney, a sports reporter for the Times-Picayune, about recent sanctions against the New Orleans Saints and what it means for the fans, players, and the NFL.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. The people of New Orleans love their pro football team, the Saints. And yesterday, the Saints were on the receiving end of the most severe punishment ever dished out to one team by the National Football League. For running a bounty system, by which defensive players got bonuses for injuring opposing players, the Saints' head coach, Sean Payton, is suspended for a year without pay. Assistant coach Joe Vitt got a six-game suspension. The general manager, Mickey Loomis, is out for eight games. The team loses two draft picks and is fined half a million dollars. So how is this going down among Saints fans?

JERRY HINGLE: Heartbreaking, certainly, without a doubt. I think a lot of folks are deeply disappointed. The good-guy perception we had of our team is probably tarnished now.

DENISE THEVENOT: Well, they really punished the city. They punished all the players. And not having a coach is going to be a real struggle for us. And so I think it was just too harsh of a punishment. They could have punished the coach and the players to a stronger extent and punish the city less.

SIEGEL: Those were Saints fans Jerry Hingle and Denise Thevenot of New Orleans. And now, we're going to talk to James Varney who covers the Saints for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans. Welcome to the program.

JAMES VARNEY: Hi.

SIEGEL: And the Saints were one of the best teams in the league last year. We heard some fan reaction there. How are the players dealing with losing their Super Bowl-winning coach for an entire year?

VARNEY: For the most part, I'd say that the players have been pretty quiet. I've spoken to some of the defensive players, and they continue to maintain that they were operating what they call a pay-for-performance scheme. Certainly, the Saints players are saying that what they did they felt was not out of bounce. It was not unprecedented with the culture of the NFL. Players and coaches will use just about anything they can as a motivational tool in this game. And this is one that the Saints are already trying to capitalize and insisting that it will knit them even closer together and probably make them a more competitive and better team. I think that's going to be a pretty tough battle.

SIEGEL: What do you make of the fact that the league has punished management, coaching staff, a former member of the coaching staff but not any players?

VARNEY: Well, they are going to punish players. That's just - there's more pain coming for New Orleans, in fact. And Commissioner Goodell made that clear yesterday that he's going to consult more with the players' union before he metes out those punishments.

SIEGEL: Do you have the sense that if, as the Saints say, that their bounty system was perhaps not that out of bounce with the culture of the NFL, informal betting among players over big hits and knockout shots, do you think that this would change all that, and that the culture of the NFL will be altered as a result of it?

VARNEY: Certainly, speaking with Ryan Clark, who is the safety for the Steelers, Patrick Peterson, who's a cornerback for the Arizona Cardinals, they feel that this will. One of the points that Ryan Clark was making was that the Baltimore Ravens, for example, the players there have admitted that they had bounties. But we've never really seen an investigation or the scope that extended to the coaches and the front office. And he thought that that was really a new wrinkle and probably contributed to the severity of it.

But now that the league has imposed these really draconian measures, they think that this will have an impact, and that the statement is pretty loud and clear. And one of the things that Goodell also did yesterday, following his announcement of the punishments, was he ordered all 32 teams to sort of make sure there were no bounties in place where they were. And he ordered all owners to meet with their head coaches to ensure that this kind of thing doesn't happen. So the league isn't mincing its words.

SIEGEL: The league, of course, faces hundreds of lawsuits related to injury or concussions suffered by players or former players. Is the point here to develop a defense against those lawsuits?

VARNEY: Oh, I think that's definitely a piece of it. I mean, as you say, there is this backdrop of litigation that's pending against the league. I would imagine that their lawyers in New York are telling them that, look, if any of these cases would ever come into a courtroom, you're going to have to show a jury that you were very serious about trying to combat it. And I think that this is about what's the most serious punishments that the league has ever handed out. So I guess, at this point, how much more serious can you get?

SIEGEL: James Varney, thank you very much for talking with us today.

VARNEY: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: James Varney covers the New Orleans Saints for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans.

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