NEW YORK - The NFL says that New Orleans Saints players maintained a bounty program over the last three seasons that targeted opponents with the intent to injure them.
The league disclosed the findings of an investigation Friday, saying between 22 and 27 defensive players and at least one assistant coach were involved. No punishments have been handed out yet, but they could include suspensions and fines.
Commissioner Roger Goodell said he is troubled because the system, "involved not just payments for 'performance,' but also for injuring opposing players. The bounty rule promotes two key elements of NFL football: player safety and competitive integrity."
"It is our responsibility to protect player safety and the integrity of our game, and this type of conduct will not be tolerated," Goodell said. "We have made significant progress in changing the culture with respect to player safety and we are not going to relent. We have more work to do and we will do it."
The league's investigation showed the pool for the bounty program may have surpassed $50,000 at its height during the 2009 playoffs. New Orleans won the Super Bowl that season.
"I have been made aware of the NFL's findings relative to the 'Bounty Rule' and how it relates to our club," Saints owner Tom Benson said in a statement. "I have offered and the NFL has received our full cooperation in their investigation. While the findings may be troubling, we look forward to putting this behind us and winning more championships in the future for our fans."
The NFL began its investigation in early 2010 after receiving allegations that quarterbacks Kurt Warner of Arizona and Brett Favre of Minnesota had been targeted. After interviewing several Saints who denied the bounty program existed - and having the player who originally made the allegations recant - the league couldn't prove anything.
However, Goodell said the NFL "recently received significant and credible new information and the investigation was re-opened during the latter part of the 2011 season."