March 8, 2012

FOOTBALL IS a punishing game and injury its constant companion. For most players, pain and disability are unfortunate byproducts of this violent profession. Last week we learned that, for some, delivering debilitating blows had become a brutal and lucrative goal in itself.

Gregg Williams has admitted that, as a defensive coach for the New Orleans Saints, he promised cash to players who “knocked out” opponents. The reward for sidelining an opposing player for an entire game: $1,500. The prize for delivering a hit that required the opponent to be carried off the field: $1,000. Mr. Williams is said to have relied on these incentives during the Saints’ 2009 Super Bowl championship season.

For many professional football players, the sums may have been modest. But any financial inducement to cause injury is beyond the pale.

Mr. Williams said in a statement that “it was a terrible mistake, and we knew it was wrong while we were doing it.” So, surely, did Mr. Williams’s bosses, Head Coach Sean Payton and General Manager Mickey Loomis, who reportedly knew about the bounties and did nothing to stop them. The callousness is all the more despicable in the light of the evidence of the long-lasting and profound harm that even routine hits can cause.

The damage done by Mr. Williams is not limited to his time with New Orleans; several Washington Redskins players have said that they, too, were enticed with “gain-for-pain” incentives when Mr. Williams was their defensive coordinator. Former Buffalo Bills players have said Mr. Williams employed the same tactics there as head coach.

The National Football League is weighing sanctions for Mr. Williams and the other Saints officials; it is also looking into the use of bounties at other teams, including the Redskins. Nothing short of swift and severe punishment of the guilty will be acceptable. Mr. Williams should be barred from coaching. Other team officials who condoned or tolerated inducements to injure or maim should also face stiff penalties, including suspension, and the teams themselves must be made to pay a serious price, including fines and forfeiture of prized draft picks. Individual players who took part should also face consequences. The NFL must send a resounding message that there is no place for such savagery even in a violent sport.