The NFL made a surprising announcement a few moments ago by revealing between 22 and 27 players from the New Orleans Saints and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams had maintained a "bounty" program between 2009 and 2011. The Saints kept a fund not only to pay players for fumbles and interceptions, but they paid them for causing injuries to opposing players. Both the "bounty" and "pay for performance" funds are serious violations of NFL rules.
In regards to causing injury to opponents, the Saints paid $1,500 for a "knockout," meaning a player was unable to return to the game. They also rewarded players with $1,000 for causing an injury requiring a player to be carried off the field. At times, the bounty for injuries have targeted specific players, such as Kurt Warner and Brett Favre when they played for the Arizona Cardinals and Minnesota Vikings.
The "bounty" program is a blatant violation of NFL rules, but the "pay for performance," rewarding players for fumbles and interceptions, is an issue because they are considered "non-contract bonuses" as they were not agreed upon terms during contract negotiation. The "pay for performance" program violated both NFL bylaws and the CBA.
The investigation initially started in 2010, but the NFL was unable to to substantiate the allegations and closed the investigation. They received new information in 2011 that caused them to revisit the case.
I can't recall such an infraction of this type of this magnitude before in the NFL. The Saints are certainly at risk of losing a draft pick and it is possible owner Tom Benson and head coach Sean Payton could face serious fines if the NFL believes they had knowledge of the situation. The Saints currently lack a first round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft as they traded it to New England in 2011 for Mark Ingram.
**Update** It is now being reported that Sean Payton was aware of the program and that it was being administered by Williams. This means it is likely Payton too will face a harsh penalty. This is getting ugly fast for the Saints.