STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The National Football League is facing another challenge in its effort to make an inherently violent sport safer. Sometime in the next few weeks it's expected that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will punish those involved with what is being called a bounty program. It was carried out by the 2010 Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints. Yesterday, the defensive coach who allegedly orchestrated a program of paying players to injure opponents met with league officials. And we're going to talk about this with NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman.
Tom, good morning.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: What kind of meeting was it?
GOLDMAN: We don't know the details of what happened. It is reported that Gregg Williams, the defensive coordinator in question here, met with NFL security officials and that Roger Goodell wasn't there.
Now, Williams currently is the defensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams. He has admitted to and apologized for running what's being called this bounty system the last three seasons in New Orleans. The NFL reportedly is investigating whether he did the same when he coached other places, including Buffalo, Washington, Tennessee and Jacksonville.
INSKEEP: Well, how have people responded to this news of players being paid to injure other players?
GOLDMAN: You know, it was slow moving over the weekend. The story first came out last Friday. Yesterday, though, it started to catch fire. You've got current and former players tweeting and doing interviews and it's creating a lot of discussion and debate about football violence and the intent to injure.
Now, lots of players are saying, hey, this is not a shock. From Pee Wee football on, we are rewarded for hard hits. We're rewarded with stickers on our helmets. We're rewarded with money when we get to the pros. And the more bone crunching hits the better.
The goal is to inflict pain, to strike fear in an opponent, but - and a big but here, Steve - that's not the same as having the goal to injure someone and knock them out of the game. To which people who've never played football say, I don't really get that distinction.
INSKEEP: Yeah. Well, is there a distinction?
GOLDMAN: Well, players say absolutely. Most say they draw that line. Now, yesterday on ESPN, Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young said what sets the Saints story apart is that the bounty program was institutionalized, in his words. It involved Gregg Williams and other defensive coaches. According to the NFL's investigation, the Saints general manager and head coach knew about it and didn't stop it even when asked to.
And Steve Young noted, this was happening while the league was finally trying to address the concussion issue in a meaningful way.
STEVE YOUNG: They're trying to make the league safer. They're trying to make the league more palatable to the market. They're not going to have someone die on the field. And about three or four years ago it was very clear that they were worried that that could happen. So, on their watch while they're trying to change the nature of how defensive players tackle, under their nose the Super Bowl champions had an institutionalized program to go hurt players. And so to me that's what differentiated it from all the other stuff.
INSKEEP: That's Steve Young. And Tom Goldman is still with us.
And, Tom, what at stake here for the NFL?
GOLDMAN: You know, it's hard to believe the NFL is seriously worried about fans walking away from the league because of this. This game, with all its warts, is so ingrained in the American psyche and culture. Fans haven't walked in the face of all the law breaking by players in recent years or by the very serious health and safety issues with concussions, especially with retired players.
That said, the commissioner doesn't want this spreading throughout the league. It could taint the product if fans are wondering if a big hit was prompted by a bounty payment. Already for some, it's tainted the Saints feel good story when they won the Super Bowl and were the symbol of New Orleans comeback from Katrina. So look for Goodell to come down with some serious punishment - fines, suspensions - by the end of this month.
INSKEEP: Tom, thanks for bringing us up to date.
GOLDMAN: You bet.
INSKEEP: That's NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman.
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INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.