NFL-Saints suspensions cast cloud over Super Bowl win

Reuters

Wed, 21 Mar 20:21:00 2012

The New Orleans Saints' fall from grace is nearly complete. A little more than two years after they captured the hearts of America with their inspiring victory in Super Bowl XLIV, they now find themselves in disgrace.

Head coach Sean Payton has been suspended for a year without pay for his role in the team's brutal "pay for pain" bounty system and he is not alone.

Former defensive co-ordinator Gregg Williams, who was at the centre of the bounty scheme, was suspended indefinitely while general manager Mickey Loomis and assistant head coach Joe Vitt were both banned from the early part of next season.

The team was fined $500,000 and ordered to forfeit their selections in the second round of the 2012 and 2013 NFL drafts. And there may be more to come as the NFL decides what to do about the players who were involved.

The scandal has also tarnished the memory of their emotional Super Bowl triumph in the 2009 season when the Saints were adopted as 'America's team' after beating the Indianapolis Colts in Miami.

In a country that demands success, the Saints were a team seemingly destined never to win. In 42 previous seasons, they had never played in the Super Bowl, let alone won the greatest prize in American professional sports.

But millions of Americans, including President Barack Obama, rejoiced in their win, which gave new hope to a region still reeling from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

"It was more than just a football game and more than just a football team. The hopes, dreams and struggles of that community were all reflected in that football team," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said at the time.

But little of that sentiment remains today after the emergence of details on how some of their players were paid to deliberately injure their opponents.

On Wednesday, when he handed down the penalties, Goodell's mood was more sombre.

"Clearly, we were lied to. We investigated this back in 2010, we were told it was not happening, it continued for another two years..." he told the NFL Network.

"We were misled and there were denials throughout that period. Meanwhile there continued to be risk to our players and to the integrity of our game. So it calls for a very significant and clear message."

After the list of sanctions was announced, even the New Orleans players were left searching for answers.

"I am speechless," tweeted quarterback Drew Brees. "Sean Payton is a great man, coach and mentor. The best there is. I need to hear an explanation for punishment."

Payton was widely praised for his positive, almost risky, play calls during the Super Bowl, but the focus on that season has already changed.

Now, the hits that were made in games such as the NFC Championship when Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre was heavily targetted, are under scrutiny.

The only real hint of anything sinister in the New Orleans camp during the 2009 season came during the build-up to the Super Bowl when Williams was criticised for calling for his defense to make "Remember me shots" on Colts quarterback Peyton Manning.

Williams' comment that "you hope he doesn't get back up and play again" was taken as the kind of mind-games and hype that comes before a huge game.

But in the light of the NFL's investigation, 'Remember me hits', for financial reward, could be all that Williams is remembered for, and a dark shadow that will stay with the Saints for years to come.

 

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