Saints Crossed the Line in “Bountygate”

Yesterday, the NFL handed out suspensions to players involved in the New Orleans Saints Bountygate scandal. Four players were suspended without pay, and one, LB Johnathan Vilma, is out for the entire season.

Vilma is upset and released a statement today where he said he never set out to intentionally hurt anyone.

He must have a different definition of “intentional” than the rest of us, because Vilma purportedly offered a $10,000 bounty to anyone who could knock Vikings QB Brett Favre out of the 2009 NFC Championship Game. Last time I checked, to knock someone out of a game, you have to hurt them.

A lot of players and fans have cried foul on the NFL for its discipline. Football is a violent game, they say, and we’re already paying guys to commit this sort of violence. Penalizing players, coaches, and teams for throwing some money in a kitty as incentive is, at best, disingenuous. (Not that I can imagine an NFL player or coach using the word, “disingenuous,” even the ones from Stanford.)

The thing is, though, there is a line. And I don’t care how much players and coaches try to deny it, everybody knows where it is. You don’t take cheap shots. You don’t play dirty. You give the guy your best legal shot and you move on. You don’ttryto hurt your opponent.

And that’s what the Saints did. They were trying to hurt the guys in the other uniforms. Moreover, they were celebrating doing it. That’s what the money was about. “You hurt that guy. Here’s a reward. Celebrate.”

And let’s get down to some hard facts. Off the football field, if you pay someone to hurt someone else, you go to jail. A $10,000 bounty on Brett Favre outside the stadium is known as a contract hit, and both the person paying it and the person executing it are guilty of felonies.

The league absolutely did the right thing by suspending the players involved, the coaches involved, and penalizing the Saints draft picks. Vilma and the others involved should consider themselves fortunate if the league doesn’t turn over its information to the Justice Department and ask for a criminal investigation.

Football is a violent game. Terrible accidents happen. Sometimes players recover, such as when then-Bengals QB Carson Palmer came back from having his ACL and MCL ruptured during a 2005 playoffs game. Sometimes the player doesn’t — such as the paralyzations of Dennis Byrd and Darryl Stingley.

But none of those cases was a deliberate attempt to hurt the player. They were unfortunate consequences of a violent game.

A $10,000 bounty to take out one of the highest-profile quarterbacks in the game during a conference championship is not only outside the spirit of the game; it’s criminal.

There’s a line. Everyone knows where it is. Even the Saints.

And they crossed it.

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