The NFL’s Death Penalty: Why the Penalties for the Saints Were Not Only Justified, But Necessary

Three letters in the English language can quickly conjure up the epitome of corruption in college sports.




And those same three letters also bring to mind one of the harshest penalties ever handed down to a college program — the so-called “Death Penalty.”

In 1986, the NCAA handed down the “Death Penalty” to Southern Methodist University for it widespread pay-for-play scheme that lasted for nearly a decade.  The NCAA had already stepped in and told the university to cut it out, even placing the program on probation in 1985.  That probation should have served as a warning, but instead seemed to embolden the boosters and alumni as the payments continued to flow in.

The NCAA had no choice.  In an era when there were several ongoing investigations to such schemes, the governing body of college athletics needed to send a message that this would not be tolerated.  And SMU, perhaps the most egregious offender at the time (though by no means the only offender), became the burned body hanged over the bridge.  A symbol to all of what would happen if you followed the Mustangs’ slippery path.



SMU was banned from football in 1987.  The effect was so bad that the Mustangs could not even field a viable team in 1988, once the ban ended.  It shook the program so terribly that they did not field a competitive team for two decades, dropping from being a once-proud (albeit corrupt) program to being the laughingstock of college football.  In their first season back, SMU lost to Houston 95-21 and for the season gave up an average of over 45 points per game (over 51 points per loss).  It would not be until 1997 — ten years after the Death Penalty year — that SMU would have a winning record (though no bowl) and not until 2009 that the Mustangs returned to a bowl game.

In other words, the penalties were devastating, but continues to serve as a reminder to NOT follow the path of SMU.

This is exactly why the NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell needed to sentence the New Orleans Saints to its own “Death Penalty” for its bounty system.  And the parallels between SMU and the Saints are striking.

Just like the Mustangs, there was a pay scheme based on a slush fund.  Saints players would put up money for big time plays.  This could be something as simple as an interception, or something more devious like purposely injuring an opposing player.  Of course, the issue here is twofold.

First, in an era of the NFL trying to show more concern about player safety, a bounty system that rewards injurious plays runs counter to the NFL’s mission.  Second, such bonuses circumvent salary cap regulations and therefore circumvent the collective bargaining agreement.

In 2010, evidence first surfaced of a possible bounty system under Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.  This came in light of the numerous hard shots placed on Arizona Cardinals QB Kurt Warner and Minnesota Vikings passer Brett Favre during the 2009-10 playoffs.  There was nothing concrete at the time, but the NFL told the Saints organization that if there were a bounty system that it needed to end and the “culture” needed to be cleaned up.  Saints’ brass agreed.  We can call this the probation.

But then in March 2012, more firm evidence was revealed that not only was there previously a bounty system in place, but it continued through the 2011 season!  Like SMU, the Saints continued with their ways despite being warned.  And like the NCAA, the NFL needed to send a message — that charred body over the bridge to warn all!

And so, the NFL dropped their death penalty.  Former Saints DC (now with the Rams…kind of) Williams is suspended from the League indefinitely with a review after the 2012 season.  Saints head coach Sean Payton is suspended without pay for the entire 2012 season (beginning 1 April).  General Manager Mickey Loomis is suspended for the 2012 regular season (beginning after the preseason).  And the organization must cough up $500,000, as well as draft picks in both the 2012 and 2013 seasons.

The only thing missing here is a ban on the Saints even participating in the 2012 season.  Maybe the NFL could have stripped the Saints of home games…or force them to play in an empty Superdome for all the home games (a punishment that is often seen in soccer).  But, that would be punishing the fans of New Orleans — fans who did nothing wrong — although it would hit the organization hard.  Furthermore, I doubt that the NFL would want that to be the catalyst for the Saints bolting to, say, Los Angeles because of the lost revenue.

Like in SMU’s case, there were likely cases were other teams also had bounties.  And perhaps the NFL and Goodell know about those (hence the mandatory certification that no such system exists).  But also like SMU, an example was needed and the Saints fit that need.

Many have wondered if the penalties were too harsh.  After the bounty system was made public — and before the penalties were announced — Sports Illustrated‘s Peter King thought that the penalties would be severe, but that Payton would only lose a few games in the 2012 season.  Instead, the hammer was brought down.

But, the penalties are not “too harsh.”  Hell, given that we are discussing the livelihood of NFL players, the penalties may not have been harsh enough.  Certainly more penalties will be handed down as the Saints’ players that were involved in the scheme receive their punishment.  But in the end, the NFL’s penalties were likely just right.

The NFL needed to make an example that bounty systems will NOT be tolerated.  Do you think head coaches and coordinators want to miss a year without pay?  Do you think GM’s want to be so heavily penalized?  Do you think that the owner wants to be parting ways with half-a-million dollars?

Universities looked at what happened to SMU — and in many ways, what is still happening to SMU — and decided that they did not want that kind of punishment handed down to their program, especially in the era of big money college football.  Oh sure, there is still a level of corruption in college sports.  But it is no where near what it was in the 1980s with SMU (or, at least, not as visible).

NFL teams will do the same when considering what happened to the Saints.  Certainly, teams and players may try to offer some incentives for big plays (interceptions, for example), but placing bounties on opposing players will not likely return for fear of the “Death Penalty.”  The NFL was not only justified in its decision, but the decision was necessary for the safety of the players and the viability of the League.

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