Opinion: Who are the real winners in the NFL? NPR's Scott Simon reflects on football coach Sean Payton's new contract with the Denver Broncos as well as NFL player safety ahead of Sunday's Super Bowl game.

Opinion: Who are the real winners in the NFL?

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The Philadelphia Eagles are slight favorites to win the Super Bowl tomorrow, but Sean Payton's already won big. The former head coach of the New Orleans Saints, with whom he won a Super Bowl, has signed a five-year, estimated $18 million a year contract to coach the Denver Broncos. He becomes the Broncos coach at the end of a football season in which even more attention has been drawn to the toll the game can inflict on players, especially after Damar Hamlin, the Buffalo Bills safety, suffered a cardiac arrest after a tackle last month. Mr. Hamlin appeared at the NFL honors ceremony this week and spoke of how grateful he feels to be alive.

Sean Payton won seven division titles with New Orleans, as well as their Super Bowl. He was 2006 NFL coach of the year. But he was suspended by the NFL for the 2012 season over what became known as Bountygate. An NFL investigation found more than 20 Saints players set up cash bounties to entice teammates to intentionally injure opposing players so painfully and seriously, they'd be taken out of the game. A thousand cash was the typical payoff if a player was carted off the field on a stretcher, $1,500 if the player was knocked out. The numbers went up for more key players in playoff games. Pro football is a violent enterprise, but offering players cash bounties to injure other players is still against the rules.

Sean Payton was not accused of orchestrating the scheme or offering his own cash prizes. But the NFL's investigation found he did not stop the bounties when he learned about them or end the payoffs when so ordered by his team's owner. In fact, the NFL found that as the investigation deepened, Sean Payton had advised assistant coaches, make sure our ducks are in a row. Sean Payton was the first head coach in decades to be suspended. It cost him nearly $8 million in salary. He helped coach his son's sixth grade team during his year off, served his suspension and returned to the game at which he excels.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told a press conference this week that injuries in the NFL have been down 6% this year. But if you watch the Super Bowl tomorrow - and despite many misgivings, I may - you might consider Sean Peyton's pricey new contract and wonder if it means the NFL has moved much beyond seeing the breaks, sprains and concussions of its own players as being just part of the game.

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