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Football Bounties: Consequences Could Extend Beyond the Field

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In response to the discovery that a popular NFL team had instituted a bounty system in which players received bonuses for intentionally injuring targets on rival teams, the league dealt the team in question, the New Orleans Saints, a harsh blow by suspending its head coach for one year and withholding its draft picks, among other penalties. When players purposely inflict harm on one another, however, the consequences could extend beyond the field.

“Granted, players assume the risk of the game,” explained California personal injury attorney James Ballidis, “but, in the case of bounties, civil actions could arise.”

The NFL began investigating the bounty scheme after an unnamed player reported that the Saints were targeting high-ticket players on their opponents’ teams, including Kurt Warner, reported The New York Times. Although the initial claim could not be corroborated, new evidence came to light in late 2011, and the NFL found sufficient information to uncover the details of the scheme.

In response to their findings, the NFL took serious action against the Saints and those involved. Coach Sean Payton was suspended with no pay for one year and Loomis for eight games, while assistant coach Joe Vitt was suspended for six games. The Saints were fined $500,000 and lost two draft picks, and there is some speculation that individual players could be punished as well.

Bounties are a violation of NFL Policy and Commissioner Roger Goodell stated that “The payments here are particularly troubling because they involved not just payments for ‘performance,’ but also for injuring opposing players.” Because of the intentional encouragement of violence, the NFL believes that the penalties they imposed on the Saints are appropriate to act as a deterrent and to punish those involved.

The NFL has also indicated that every team is required to certify that no similar bounty programs are in place. While no other team has been formally accused by the NFL of having a bounty system in effect at this time, there is much speculation suggesting that this type of behavior is normal practice within the NFL. For instance, Reuters quoted former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Danny White as saying, “If I was a betting man, I’d go to Vegas with every penny I’ve got that there were other teams doing it … I know when I played there was a bounty on me.”

Players and coaches for various teams have also indicated that more informal incentives exist for important plays, including hits that cause players to leave the game. In addition, the former coach of the Indianapolis Colts, Tony Dungy, suggested that he believed the Titans had had bounties in the past, including a bounty on Peyton Manning. The Reuters statistics on NFL violence support this theory, as the Titans had a 32.6 percent rate of violent defense penalties.

The 70-percent surge in violent penalties in the league since 2008, as reported by Reuters, may also point to the fact that bounty systems are in place among other teams in addition to the Saints.

The penalties for the Saints imposed by the NFL demonstrate that the football league takes bounties seriously and will not tolerate them. However, the league-imposed penalties may not be the only consequences. Individual players could also be held liable in personal injury actions if it can be proven that a player participated in a play outside of the norm for the game and, in doing so, acted with reckless disregard for the safety of his opponent, explained a California personal injury attorney.

The general rule for football players who become injured in the normal course of a football game is that these players assumed the risk of their participation in the sport. However, a 1979 case called Hackbart v. Cincinnati Bengals, Inc established the rule that even in inherently violent situations like football, a party could be liable for injuries if he went beyond the customs and bounds of the game and acted in a way that showed reckless disregard for the safety of the other players.

While players assume the risk of being tackled on the field, they likely do not assume the risk of being tackled by someone who is actively trying to hurt them to obtain a bounty. Likewise, it is very unlikely that they assume the risk of an entire bounty-system perpetrated by coaches and team managers. Evidence of the existence of this bounty system and of a player’s intent to hurt could provide grounds for legal liability against the player and perhaps against the coaches or team that allowed or encouraged the wrongful behavior.

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