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NFL finds that Saints violated “bounty rule”

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 07: Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams of the New Orleans Saints looks on during warms up prior to playing against the Detroit Lions at Mercedes-Benz Superdome during their 2012 NFC Wild Card Playoff game on January 7, 2012 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

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No NFL team whose city hosts the Super Bowl has ever played in that game. And the Saints will be launching their effort to do so with a very dark cloud hanging over the franchise.

The league announced Friday afternoon that the Saints violated the “bounty rule” in 2009, 2010, and 2011. Specifically, the NFL has concluded that between 22 and 27 defensive players along with at least one assistant coach maintained a “bounty” program. It was funded primarily by players, with $50,000 or more available during the 2009 playoffs.

Commissioner Roger Goodell will impose discipline. To date, the punishment has not been determined.

“The payments here are particularly troubling because they involved not just payments for ‘performance,’ but also for injuring opposing players,” Commissioner Goodell said in a league-issued release. “The bounty rule promotes two key elements of NFL football: player safety and competitive integrity.

“It is our responsibility to protect player safety and the integrity of our game, and this type of conduct will not be tolerated. We have made significant progress in changing the culture with respect to player safety and we are not going to relent. We have more work to do and we will do it.”

The league’s release says that the program was administered by former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, and that it included payments not only for fumbles and interceptions but also for inflicting injuries that resulted in players being carried off the field ($1,000) and/or knocked out of the game ($1,500).

The release also states that coach Sean Payton, while not involved in the program directly, was aware of it and did nothing to stop it.

General Manager Mickey Loomis also has been implicated; though the relevant portion of the release is a bit unclear, it appears that Loomis may have lied to owner Tom Benson about the existence of a bounty program and/or failed to carry out Benson’s directive that it be ended.

The league will work with the NFLPA to determine the appropriate sanction, and the penalties can include fines, suspensions, and/or the forfeiture of draft choices. Benson may decide to take more drastic action, especially if he believes that Loomis either lied or otherwise defied the owner of the team.

We’ll have much more to come on this one. There is plenty of information to digest in the league’s press release, which the NFL wisely dumped on a late Friday afternoon. Though the league deserves credit for not brushing this under the rug, the NFL has been forced to announce to the world that another one of its teams has been caught cheating -- and doing so in a way that encouraged injury to opposing players. Thus, even though the Saints look like anything but, these activities also have applied a black eye to the NFL. It’s no surprise that the news is coming in the one portion of the work-week news cycle where embarrassing stories go to die.