It’s been a few rough months for the New Orleans Saints.  The ‘bounty’ program, in which Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams paid members of the New Orleans Saints defense in 2009 to injure players, was recently exposed. The NFL and Roger Godell have yet to announce what the punishment is going to be, though its almost certain to involve lost draft picks, fines, and suspensions. And to top everything off, Drew Brees still hasn’t signed a contract.

Also, that whole bounty thing? Might result in civil law cases or even criminal charges.

Generally, in sports, things that would result in legal action off the field generally are assumed to be ‘part of the game;’ the players choose voluntarily to assume the risk when they play the game. However, there’s obviously a line that can be crossed. However, if a player goes so far beyond the realm of what the rules of the sport contemplate that an opposing player could not anticipate their behavior, the system breaks down.

Sports Illustrated legal analyst Michael McCann did an excellent job laying out the possible legal actions that could result from the bounty action. Clearly, the most interesting are the possible criminal actions; either some form of battery against the players and conspiracy charges against the Saints’ coaches, including Gregg Williams and Head Coach Sean Payton. Interestingly, while Mr. McCann seems to imply that either cause of action has merit and should even possibly succeed, he argues that prosecutors are unlikely to bring the charges as they and the courts are likely to defer to the NFL’s internal regulations. Gabe Feldman, as associate professor of law at Tulane University, agrees. As Professor Feldman points out, there simply isn’t a lot of case law in this area in the U.S; these type of cases actually are more common in Canada involving the NHL. Whether this remains the case may actually turn on what happens involving the NFL discipline; prosecutors might be more willing to bring charges if the NFL’s punishment is seen as too generalized or too lenient. While the criminal justice system may be reluctant to intervene in the regulation of sports, that hesitancy might waver if the NFL does not take strong enough action.Which, of course, the last thing that the NFL wants is for the courts to get involved in regulating the sport.

Far more likely is for a player to bring civil litigation against the Saints; either individually or as a team. Here, there’s even precedent, as the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that a football player can be made responsible for injuring an opponent if he acts with “reckless disregard for the opponent’s safety.” Whether that can be proven is a whole other issue, of course, since it’s probably next to impossible for a judge or jury to figure out if an injury occurred intentionally, recklessly, or accidentally. Football itself is not exactly a peaceful game.

Even then, the more interesting question might become what the NFL will do in such a situation, as it’s quite possible the NFL might get sued itself amidst reports that the Saint’s bounty program might not be an isolated problem. While the NFL might downplay the problem or even deny knowledge, this might become a huge problem and liability for the entire league and not just individual teams. Considering that ex-players have already shown themselves more than ready to sue the league, this issue simply will not go away any time soon.

Eddie Chadwick

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4 Responses to Another Legal Headache for the NFL: The Bounty Problem

  1. Charles Michels says:

    With the draft coming up on April 26th, what about possible implications regarding current Saints players who have yet to be suspended? It seems overly harsh to force the Saints to go into the draft not knowing which players may be subject to suspensions, and the severity of these suspensions.

    That being said, I’m not sure the Saints have any recourse whatsoever. It’s not an NFLPA issue (outside of the player’s suspensions being appealed). It seems like the Saints best bet will be to take the same route that the Redskins and Cowboys end up taking in fighting this more recent salary cap issue problem.

  2. Alex Payne says:

    Football is a violent sport. You can’t really take the violence out of the game, but the problem that Goodell is facing lies in moving past an era where violence wasn’t just a means to an end, but the end itself to many players. Bounties certainly aren’t new, and for someone who is fascinated by the Luther Campbell-era Miami Hurricanes, bounties were a huge part of the “impermissible” benefits Uncle Luke provided to players. (Another interesting side note, Saints’ defensive captain J. Vilma played college football at… Miami.) I view this “controversy” more as Goodell covering himself with all of these concussion lawsuits coming down the pipeline – it would just take one witness at trial reciting the content of a bounty program to gain the sympathy of a jury regarding the lack of league control. The only real problem that I even have with the Saints’ “program” is the idiocracy that is Gregg Williams’ naming of specific players and injuries. Other than that, there really is no evidence that the Saints played the game any differently, they were just rewarded in the locker room for playing well. Using the word “bounty” just makes it sound a lot worse than it actually was – I always assumed “programs” like this existed as a necessary corollary to Kangaroo courts.

  3. Ryan S. says:

    I don’t see a civil lawsuit arising out of the bounty program scandal. The predominant problem with a civil lawsuit would be establishing proof that players were intending to inflict injuries outside the rules of the game. Although the bounty program was against league policy, the types of plays awarded don’t fall outside of the inherent risk of football or trigger civil liability. Players received bounties for plays resulting in injuries, even though the players’ physical actions fell within NFL rules. If bounties were awarded solely for plays clearly outside the bounds of the game (like stomping a player after the whistle) a civil suit would be more likely, especially if permitted by NFL management.

  4. Nick B. says:

    The NFL and NFLPA just went through an off-season battle, with one major issue being player safety. Now it appears that was all a farce to soothe us fans. If the reports about the wide-spread use of this type of bounty program are to believed, it appears the NFL players don’t care about their own (or other members of the league) well-being.

    Saints Head Coach Sean Payton was suspended for a full season costing him about $6 million dollars. I’m sure that will be appealed. Does the punishment fit the crime or did he just happen to be the first to get caught/targeted by the NFL (or Roger Godell)? Does this suspension set a precedent for all other coaches where this may have occurred?

    Nick