• Updated March 7, 2012, 4:14 p.m. ET

Football’s Bounty Hunters Must Be Clipped

Payments for causing injury are unacceptable. Gregg Williams should never be seen in the NFL again.


Football is a tough, physical game. It is violent. But there is a line between being violent and being vicious. Former New Orleans Saints Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams crossed that line when he established a bounty system that rewarded players—not for tough, clean football plays but for injuring other players.

Football legend Fran Tarkenton stops by on Mean Street to react to the Indianapolis Colts’ decision to release Peyton Manning, and on how former New Orleans Saints Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams crossed the line between being violent and being vicious when he established a bounty system that rewarded players for injuring other players. Photo: Getty Images.

While coaching the New Orleans defense the last three seasons, Mr. Williams paid bonuses to players for knocking opponents out of the game. The rewards were $1,500 for a knockout, and $1,000 if the player had to be carted off the field. In the playoffs, rewards doubled and tripled.

Following his coach’s lead, linebacker Jonathan Vilma offered a $10,000 bounty to any Saints player who could knock Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre out of the NFC Championship Game during the Saints Super Bowl run in the 2009 season.

Former players from Mr. Williams’s previous career stops in Washington and Buffalo have come forward to describe similar schemes he ran for those teams, as well.

These bounty systems are despicable.

I played football professionally for 18 years. I played against some of the toughest men imaginable. Mean Joe Greene. Deacon Jones. Bob Lilly. Ray Nitschke. Dick Butkus. Jack Youngblood. And I risked getting hit more than any other quarterback of my day. No one ran more than I did—forwards, backwards, and side-to-side.

But in those 18 years, I only missed five games due to injury. My opponents wanted to beat me, and they certainly wanted to hit me to achieve that goal—but no one wanted to hurt another player deliberately. For all our competitive fire, and despite that strong desire to destroy our opposition, as professional NFL players we were part of a brotherhood. There was no joy in seeing someone injured on the field of play, even if it gave our team a better chance to win. After all, we wanted to prove that we were the best; and to be the best, you have to beat the best—not beat the JV.

But with the bounty system run by Mr. Williams, football as a fierce but honorable competition is dropped on its head.

Over the past few days, there have been many current players and NFL analysts saying that this story is no big deal. Every team does this, they say.

That is ridiculous. Bounties are not part of the game in any way.

Since news of this story broke last week, I have talked to dozens of former teammates and opponents. On my Sirius XM radio show Monday night, I talked to the toughest of them all, Hall of Famer Chuck Bednarik—who played every snap on both sides of the ball for the Philadelphia Eagles. The response was unanimous. They did not put bounties on other players, and those who do so are not tough—they are cowards.

Peyton Manning’s neck injuries, which kept him out all of last season, may have something to do with a vicious hit during a game against the Washington Redskins when Mr. Williams was coaching there. It was one of the worst hits I have ever seen, as one player tackles him low from the side, before another hits him high head-on, bending him backwards and ripping his helmet off in the process.

During the Saints’ Super Bowl run, opposing quarterbacks Kurt Warner and Brett Favre were hit repeatedly. Mr. Warner went flying through the air and was briefly knocked out of the game after one particularly vicious hit. Mr. Favre was hit on almost every play, including many inexcusable late hits coming well after throwing the ball or even handing it off to a running back. That was the last game Mr. Warner ever played.

This is a particularly nightmarish scenario for the NFL in light of the league’s concussion problem. For years, the league denied that football hits and concussions had a connection to health problems in former players, but now studies have shown that there are devastating long-term consequences from head trauma.

Football is a violent, dangerous game that leads to terrible injuries even when the players are not deliberately trying to knock one another out of the game. Players, like all people, respond to incentives. When you incentivize them to get opponents carried off the field on a stretcher, they are going to attempt to cause serious injuries.

This opens the NFL up to serious legal consequences and risks a fan backlash. Audiences love hard competition. They do not want to see gang warfare on a football field.

The NFL has to come down hard on this scandal because every team, coach and player needs to get the message that this is not ok. Gregg Williams should never be seen in the NFL again. Others in the Saints organization who knew about the bounties and did not stop them, including General Manager Mickey Loomis and Head Coach Sean Payton, both of whom I like and respect, must also be severely punished. Players who participated should face consequences, and the Saints 2009 Super Bowl championship will be forever tarnished.

These are harsh punishments, but the game of football must purge itself of this heinous blight.

Mr. Tarkenton, an NFL quarterback from 1961-1978, is the chairman and founder of OneMoreCustomer.com.

A version of this article appeared Mar. 7, 2012, on page A17 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Football’s Bounty Hunters Must Be Clipped.

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