By Steve Keating
(Reuters) - The New Orleans Saints were handed the bill for their pay-for-pain bounty scheme on Wednesday and it was a hefty one as the National Football League (NFL) administered its own hurt with massive fines and suspensions.
The few thousands of dollars New Orleans coaches paid out as reward for 'big hits' and plays which took opponents out of the game proved a costly investment the team and their stunned fans are likely to pay for years to come.
Saints' Super Bowl winning head coach Sean Payton will lose his $7 million salary this season after the league suspended him for a year without pay while the team was fined $500,000 and will forfeit their second round selections in the 2012 and 2013 drafts.
Former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, the central figure in the bounty system, according to the NFL's investigation, will also be without a pay cheque after he was suspended indefinitely from his post with the St. Louis Rams.
"I apologize to the players of the NFL for my involvement as it is not a true reflection of my values as a father or coach, nor is it reflective of the great respect I have for this game and its core principle of sportsmanship," Williams said in a statement.
"I accept full responsibility for my actions. I will continue to cooperate fully with the league and its investigation and I will focus my energies on serving as an advocate for both player safety and sportsmanship."
The Saints also issued a statement, accepting full responsibility for their actions and vowing to repent.
"There is no place for bounties in our league and we reiterate our pledge that this will never happen again," the statement read.
Apologies, however, may not be enough to assuage the NFL with more heads expected to roll as the investigation continues.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has yet to decide on punishments for players involved in the scheme and sent out a memo to all 32 owners urging them to speak to their head coaches and confirm that no bounty schemes were in place at their teams.
"While I will not address player conduct at this time, I am profoundly troubled by the fact that players - including leaders among the defensive players - embraced this program so enthusiastically and participated with what appears to have been a deliberate lack of concern for the well-being of their fellow players," Goodell said.
"While all club personnel are expected to play to win, they must not let the quest for victory so cloud their judgment that they willingly and willfully target their opponents and engage in unsafe and prohibited conduct intended to injure players."
With several other teams already implicated in the bounty scandal, the fines and suspensions handed out on Wednesday could represent just the tip of the iceberg.
The ultimate cost to league, teams and players could be staggering reaching into the billions of dollars.
The pay-for-pain scandal could have legal consequences, with prosecutors, players and even fans getting in on the judicial action.
Already facing lawsuits by former players over concussion injuries, the NFL could face the unpleasant and costly prospect of defending itself against criminal charges of assault and battery.
Once one of the NFL's most popular teams, the cost to Saints' reputation will not be known for some time but without their head coach and stripped of draft picks and possibly key players, New Orleans may find it difficult to fill their Superdome home next season and qualify for the money making playoffs.
"The bounty program is squarely contrary to the league's most important initiatives - enhancing player health and safety and protecting the integrity of the game," Goodell said. "Any form of bounty is incompatible with our commitment to create a culture of sportsmanship, fairness, and safety.
"Programs of this kind have no place in our game and we are determined that bounties will no longer be a part of the NFL."
(Editing by Julian Linden)