In our review of the top local stories of 2012, the story voted #1 by our editorial board was the penalties levied upon Saints players and coaches over the pay-for-performance program labeled “Bounty Gate” by the media.
Saints fans learned on March 2 that the NFL was investigating the Saints for a so-called “bounty” system. As the story unfolded, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell repeatedly stated that he had overwhelming evidence that the Saints had participated in a “pay for pain” system that targeted specific players.
Although Head Coach Sean Payton, Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams, and GM Mickey Loomis apologized publicly for their failure to shut down the program, every current member of the Saints organization has steadfastly maintained that there never was any intent to injure opposing players with the "pay for performance" program.
Goodell suspended Saints Coach Sean Payton for the entire season, and suspended Williams indefinitely. (Williams had left to take a position with the Rams. The Saints recently described his departure as “being fired.”)
Assistant Head Coach Joe Vitt was suspended for the first six games of the NFL season, and GM Mickey Loomis was suspended for the first eight games of the season.
Four current and former Saints players were also sanctioned, with linebacker Jon Vilma getting the harshest penalty: Suspension for a full season. Defensive end Will Smith was suspended for four games, and former Saints defensive tackle Anthony Hargrove was suspended for eight games. Former linebacker Scott Fujita was suspended for three games.
During their appeals of the penalties, none of the current and former players were forced to serve any part of their suspensions, which were later vacated.
Following the suspensions and distractions, the reeling Saints started the season 0-4. Coach Payton’s final words to the squad echoed through the Who Dat Nation: “Do your job.” But the ship was missing both their captain and rudder in Payton, and the Saints missed the playoffs for the first time in years.
It was a bittersweet victory for Saints fans late in the season when former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue overturned the suspensions of four current and former New Orleans Saints players in the league’s investigation of the club.
Tagliabue, however, found that three of the players engaged in “conduct detrimental to the league.” He said they participated in a performance pool that rewarded key plays—including hard tackles—that could merit fines. But he stressed that the team’s coaches were very much involved.
“Unlike Saints’ broad organizational misconduct, player appeals involve sharply focused issues of alleged individual player misconduct in several different aspects,” said a portion of the ruling released by the NFL. “My affirmation of Commissioner Goodell’s findings could certainly justify the issuance of fines. However, this entire case has been contaminated by the coaches and others in the Saints’ organization.”
Tagliabue was appointed by his successor, Commissioner Roger Goodell, to handle a second round of player appeals to the league in connection with the Saints’ cash-for-hits program run by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams from 2009-2011. The players initially opposed his appointment.
Fujita was the only player completely cleared of conduct detrimental to the league by Tagliabue.
With the player suspensions overturned, the end of a nearly 10-month dispute over how the NFL handled an investigation that covered three seasons and allegedly gathered about 50,000 pages of documents could be near.
Tagliabue’s ruling came after a new round of hearings that for the first time allowed Vilma’s attorneys and the NFL Players Association, which represents the other three players, to cross-examine key NFL witnesses in the probe. Those witnesses included Williams and former Saints assistant Mike Cerullo, who was fired after the 2009 season and whose email to the league, accusing the Saints of being “a dirty organization,” jump-started the probe.
With the 10-month ordeal over, linebacker Jonathan Vilma and his attorneys say their defamation lawsuit against Roger Goodell is only just beginning.
Immediately following the ruling by Tagliabue vacating the player suspensions, leaked testimony from the ‘bounty’ investigation showed that the former Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams claimed that Joe Vitt would not allow him to shut down the team’s pay-for-performance program.
Vitt responded with strong words, basically calling out Williams as a liar.
“Because we knew that the Scuds were going to come, we knew that there was going to be a leakage of information, and it was like clockwork…it was like 60 Minutes, the thing ticking, where we knew that this thing was going to come out…it’s a shame.”
Vitt said he was willing to take a polygraph test when Williams’ accusation was presented to him.
“Let me say this: Number one, in my testimony, I was never asked that question, whether or not that I wanted to keep a bounty program going. I was never asked that question,” Vitt forcefully said. “ I was told that accusation was made, and I volunteered at the time in front of Commissioner Tagliabue to take a lie-detector test that afternoon, to deny that allegation.”
Vitt also took the opportunity at the press conference to, again, strongly make his case that his players and the team did not have a “pay-for-pain” program.
“So if anybody’s keeping a score card here, let’s take a look at this. I said back in March in my first interview with the press and the media that at no point in time did our players ever cross the white line with the intent of injuring, maiming, or ending the career of another player. That never took place. I testified before a federal judge with my hand on the Bible. Now what’s going to happen now, is all participants and all these accusations are going to go to federal court, and they’re going to go to a judge. And from top to bottom, she’s going to hear testimony. And the penalty for perjury with her is going to be jail time. So let’s stop…that’s the score card right now. Our players have already been cleared by the bodies of law: Judge Berrigan, a three-judge panel, and Commissioner Tagliabue. Myself, Sean, and Mickey didn’t have that right. Now, until the day die…I’m going to defend the intent of our football players. I’m going to defend the integrity of this organization, and the high moral standards to which our owner holds us all to. And that’s just the truth.”