Saints case puts scrutiny on NFL bounty pay

The revelations were shocking and appalling to those outside the NFL: A team paid bounties to knock opponents out of the game, including some of football’s biggest stars.

For those who suit up, however, it sounded more like the long-accepted cost of doing business in a brutal sport, a dirty little secret that everyone kept on the down low.

Atlanta Falcons star Roddy White called it a “league thing” that goes far beyond the New Orleans Saints. Shawne Merriman of the Buffalo Bills wondered what all the fuss was about, having long maintained he was targeted and sustained a career-altering injury. Former All-Pro guard Alan Faneca said he wasn’t surprised at all that a sordid system had finally been exposed.

“It’s a violent game we play. Whether people want to think about it or not, part of the game is to exert physical dominance over your opponent,” Faneca, who retired after the 2010 season, told The Associated Press on Saturday. “If it results in a guy not finishing the game, then that’s what happened in the course of playing the game.”

Former NFL player Matt Bowen was the bluntest one of all.

“Bounties, cheap shots, whatever you want to call them, they are a part of this game,” Bowen wrote Saturday in a column in the Chicago Tribune.

The NFL said Friday that Saints players and at least one assistant coach maintained a bounty pool of up to $50,000 the last three seasons to reward game-ending injuries inflicted on opposing players, including star quarterbacks Brett Favre and Kurt Warner.

“Knockouts” were worth $1,500 and “cart-offs” $1,000, with payments doubled or tripled for the playoffs. According to the NFL, the pool amounts reached their height in 2009, the year the Saints won the Super Bowl.

The NFL investigation, by its own security department, delivered a blow to a league that has placed increased emphasis on safety, especially concerning concussions and dirty hits.

But as objectionable as many find the activity, is it a crime?

There was no immediate sign that prosecutors would investigate. The NFL has yet to hand out punishments, which could include suspensions, fines and loss of draft picks.

“I haven’t studied the issue yet and it’s not before us,” said Leon Cannizzaro, the district attorney of Orleans Parish in New Orleans.

Another government agency to keep an eye on: the Internal Revenue Service, which might view bounties as extra income that wasn’t reported on tax returns.

Asked whether there is a culture of “bounties” that goes beyond the Saints, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said: “If we find other violations of league rules, we will take action.” He declined to comment on whether other teams are being investigated.

If the news stunned NFL fans, it didn’t evoke the same reaction in seasoned players.

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