Commentary

Legal action unlikely in Saints' bounties

The bounty system isn't pretty, but it probably won't spawn successful litigation

Originally Published: March 6, 2012
By Lester Munson | ESPN.com

A New Orleans Saints bounty system that encouraged players to try to injure opponents presents NFL commissioner Roger Goodell with the most serious football ethics and discipline issues of his administration. Led by former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and possibly involving head coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis, the program is documented in thousands of pages of emails and documents. The bounties raise questions about legal liabilities, tax consequences and due process. Here are some of the questions and their answers:

Can a player who was targeted and hit in the bounty system file a lawsuit for damages against the player who collected money for it? Can he sue the Saints' organization?

The victim of a bounty hit could file suit, but it is unlikely he would be awarded damages. To succeed in a claim for significant money damages, the bounty victim would be required to show the tackle or block was worthy of a penalty and caused a career-altering injury. Without a penalty flag and an injury that put the victim on injured reserve, the claim would not be worth pursuing. Even with a penalty and a few missed games, the suit would have to overcome powerful evidence from players and coaches that the hit was a routine part of a game that features occasionally vicious contact.

[+] EnlargeBobby McCray
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesDefensive end Bobby McCray knocked Kurt Warner out of a 2009 game, but Warner later said it was a "clean hit."

One of the most notorious of the alleged bounty hits, Saints defensive end Bobby McCray's crushing block on Kurt Warner after an interception in a playoff game in 2009, offers an example of the problems a player would face in a damages claim. Yes, the block temporarily knocked Warner out of the game, and he retired from football two weeks later. So far so good. But that isn't the entire story. Warner returned to play in the second half, finally leaving the game only when it was out of reach. And when he retired two weeks later, Warner went on record saying McCray's block was a "clean hit" that "didn't have any bearing on my retirement decision." Any litigation claiming damages would be overwhelmed by an NFL culture that encourages crushing hits and features players who are wont to say they are tough enough to accept them.

According to the NFL's investigation, as much as $50,000 was collected and paid in the bounty program. Will the players who were awarded that money face problems from the IRS?

There might be technical violations of tax laws at play here, but the likelihood of action by the authorities is slim. So unless there is a major surprise in the thousands of pages of documents the NFL gathered from the Saints, the IRS is not likely to investigate and tax consequences are not likely. The bounties reported to this point were in amounts of $1,000 or $1,500, hardly enough to prompt IRS interest, and the reality of the situation is that it would be a waste of scarce IRS resources to sort through a complicated and messy bounty program for little in the way of taxes to be paid and collected. If, however, the documents reveal more significant payments -- say, in the tens of thousands of dollars -- the IRS could initiate an investigation.

What are the possibilities that players who collected bounties could be charged with assault or other crimes?

Criminal charges are extremely unlikely even if the intent to injure is evident. Police and prosecutors, already dealing with street violence, are reluctant to intervene in anything that happens on the field. From previous cases, prosecutors have learned that judges and juries very rarely convict an athlete for a collision or a fight that many view as part of the game. Even in the worst of cases, the courthouse punishment is minimal. One of the most egregious incidents came during an NHL game in March 2004 when Vancouver forward Todd Bertuzzi attacked Steve Moore of the Colorado Avalanche. Looking for revenge and a reported bounty after Moore gave Vancouver captain Markus Naslund a concussion in an earlier game, Bertuzzi stalked Moore in attempt to provoke a fight. When Moore refused to fight, Bertuzzi attacked him from behind, punching him in the back of the head. Moore landed on his face and suffered three fractured vertebrae, a concussion, amnesia and deep lacerations. The injuries ended Moore's career. Even in these compelling circumstances -- an obviously deliberate and dirty attack that caused life-altering injuries -- the criminal charges were settled for community service. And there is nothing in the record of any Saints player that remotely resembles the Bertuzzi attack.

How much more should we expect to learn about the bounty investigation?

More surprises are possible. Saints owner Tom Benson apparently gave NFL investigators total access to the Saints' email system. As many as 50,000 pages of emails and documents have been gathered. The team records could easily contain some surprises and could implicate team management to the highest levels. There could be as yet undisclosed smoking-gun evidence that could be highly embarrassing for Loomis and Payton.

The biggest surprise of all might be the severity of Goodell's discipline. Fines and suspensions could be severe. Some reports are already indicating the possibility of suspensions of players and coaches for as many as eight games, and it could be worse. Goodell is focused on player safety as the result of the league's concussion crisis and is likely to be unforgiving on actions that are designed to produce injuries.

Lester Munson, a Chicago lawyer and journalist who reports on investigative and legal issues in the sports industry, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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