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NFL Bounty System Crackdown: Too Harsh or Good for Players?

Recent class action lawsuits in California, New York, Florida and Georgia have drawn attention to the dangers of repeated head injuries sustained in football games. Amid the controversy of the class action lawsuits, the NFL has taken swift and harsh action against an NFL team accused of running a "bounty" scheme, perhaps in part to prove its focus on safety, explained a California personal injury lawyer

The team was the New Orleans Saints. According to NPR, the Saints had a system in place wherein defensive players received cash bonuses for causing injury to other players. An article in The New York Times indicates that both the coach, Sean Payton, and the general manager, Mickey Loomis, were part of the bounty scheme and did not do anything to stop it—even when the team's owner told Loomis to do so.  

The Times indicates that substantial money was exchanged as a part of this bounty system, with as much as $50,000 or more in the pool during the 2009 playoff season.  The alleged bounty system involved payouts of $1,500 for injuring a player severely enough that he had to leave the game and $1,000 if the player was carted off the field. These payouts could double or triple in the playoffs. 

While some involved parties indicate that there was a pay-for-performance system in place, not a bounty system paying for injuries, statistics suggest otherwise. In fact, a Reuters article reveals that this bounty scheme was likely effective incentive to get players to injure others on the field. 

According to Reuters, during the 2011 season when bounties were being paid, the Saints were among the most violent of all football teams in the NFL. They were second only to the Raiders in regular season defensive flags for violation of safety rules, but had a much higher rate for violent penalties with a league, a high of 37 percent as compared to the Raider's violent penalty rate of 20 percent. These statistics, according to Reuters, indicate that the bounty system encouraged selective violence, exactly as the system was intended to do.   

After receiving tips from players and conducting its own investigation, the NFL concluded that the Saints had played off of a bounty system. Given the recent class action lawsuits against the NFL concerning its alleged concealment of the risks associated with repeatedly sustaining concussions and the fact that bounties are a violation of the league’s official policy, the Saints were severely penalized: Sean Payton, the coach, received a one-year, unpaid suspension, and general manager Mickey Loomis and assistant coach Joe Vitt were taken out of several games. Moreover, the team was fined $500,000 and lost two draft picks. 

While many fans and commentators viewed these penalties as overly harsh, they do send a message to other teams that this and other intentionally violent practices will not be tolerated. As with the rules the league recently implemented to limit head injuries, the crackdown on bounty systems will likely benefit players by reducing the incidence of traumatic brain injury and other conditions that can have lifelong health implications. 

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