The “bounty” scandal, or bountygate as it is becoming known, of the National Football League’s New Orleans Saints has been considered by many different sports media outlets, such as ESPN, CBS, and Sports Illustrated, to be one of the worst scandals not only in NFL history, but in all of sports. The “bounty” program refers to a system set up and run by players where cash rewards were paid out to players who successfully injured or “knocked out” other players from a game. However, many consider the worst part of the program to be that Saints management and coaches knew about and encouraged the program. As a result, the league last week handed down draconian punishments that included a one year suspension for Saints head coach Sean Payton, an eight game suspension for General Manager Mickey Loomis, and an indefinite suspension for Gregg Williams, who was the coach that initially instituted the bounty program to the Saints when he was their defensive coordinator.
The significance of this scandal is that it does great damage to the NFL’s recent attempts to revamp its image and stance in regards to safety. Football, by nature, is a physical game with a high injury rate. Traditionally, the NFL has encouraged this physicality and has paid little attention to the overall and long term health of its players. However, recent research about head trauma and a class action lawsuit from retired players about the NFL’s negligence towards player safety have brought the issue to the game’s forefront. In response, the NFL has slowly introduced new tackling and equipment rules to try and protect players. In addition, new procedures have been put into place to ensure that players suffering from concussions are fully healed before they return to playing. The NFL was trying to reinvent itself to show that it cared about safety and this new prioritization was supposed to trickle down to the lower levels so that over time the game would become safer for everyone to play.
Then the bounty scandal happened.
The scandal showed that nothing had changed. The fact that it existed for so long and that coaches and players knew about it and encouraged it set an awful example for the lower levels of the game. The “bounty” system undermined the NFL’s attempts to establish itself as a safety first league.
The NFL, however, recognized the damage the scandal caused to its image and its “role model” status and this is why it punished those involved so hard. The Saints are one of the more popular franchises in the league, Payton is one of the best known and most respected coaches in the NFL, and to top it off, this year’s Super Bowl will be held in New Orleans. The last thing the NFL wanted to do was to hurt the Saints franchise, but it had to prove to all the high school and college players and their parents that the NFL is serious about safety. These harsh and severe punishments can be seen as a PR move by the NFL to respond to the image hit it took as a result of the scandal. They send the message that the NFL holds safety above all else, including the money it makes off the Saints franchise.
Bountygate shows us that when it comes to crisis management, the right decisions are rarely the easy ones. The NFL could have pretended like nothing happened and they would have continued to make heaps of money off the Saints. However, the league knew that its image as a role model for younger players was its top priority and therefore delivered a decision that will help the overall health of the league, even though it may not look that way right now.
This guest blog was written by PRowl Public Relations staff member Matt Jones.