Bounty Gate: The Potential Legal Ramifications of the New Orleans Saints’ Bounty Program (Part 1)

Last week, the NFL released information related to its finding that the New Orleans Saints instituted a bounty program during the 2009-2011 seasons.  The program, which was allegedly administrated by former Saints’ defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, paid defensive players for executing plays aimed at injuring opposing teams’ players. 

The alleged actions undertaken by members of the New Orleans Saints in 2009-2011 are strictly prohibited by the NFL.  The NFL prohibits “payouts for specific performances in a game. . .,” even if the performance is one which does not injure a fellow player.  According to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, the NFL rule against bounties “. . . promotes two key elements of NFL football:  player safety and competitive integrity.” 

Given that the NFL’s investigation showed that members of the Saints engaged in an illegal bounty program, what legal ramifications could the Saints’ players and the Saints face?  Today’s post focuses upon the legal ramifications that Saints’ players which participated in the bounty program and intentionally injured competitors may face.  Tomorrow’s post will consider what legal action the Saints as an organization may face.

The most significant causes of action which may be brought against players who participated in the Saints’ bounty program fall under the realms of tort law and criminal law. 

Tort law exists under common law, meaning that the rules which govern tort law are not created by statutes, but through case law.  Torts against the person fall under two categories:  intentional torts and negligence.

In law school, most students are taught that if a football player sustains an injury on the field while playing, it most likely is not actionable as an intentional tort.  This is because typically, if a football player sustains an injury as a result of contact with another player, it was the result of negligence.  At the simplest level, that means that the injured player typically was not injured as a result of an intentional act of the opposing player.  In torts, there is a defense to negligence causes of action called “assumption of the risk.”  Applied to a football game, assumption of the risk means that the football player knew of the risk of being injured while playing football, yet voluntarily stepped onto the field to play in the face of the risk.  The existence of the assumption of risk defense, greatly limits a football player’s ability to recover for injuries sustained on the field. 

However, the 1979 10th Circuit case of Hackbart v. Cincinnati Bengals, Inc (601 F.2d 516 (10th 1979)) demonstrated that an injured NFL player could successfully bring a tort cause of action against an opposing player and that player’s team as a result of injuries sustained in a football game.  Namely, the 10th Circuit found that Hackbart had the right to argue at trial that the actions committed against him by Cincinnati Bengals’ player Charles “Booby” Clark amounted to intentional torts.

Hackbart was brought after a 1973 game between the Denver Broncos and Cincinnati Bengals, where Bengals’ player Booby Clark struck Broncos’ defensive back Dale Hackbart in the head and neck with his forearm, while Hackbart was on the ground.  The trial court found that Clark’s actions were the result of him “acting out of anger and frustration, but without a specific intent to injure. . .” Hackbart.

Nonetheless, the appellate court in Hackbart found that Hackbart had the right to have the case tried to decide whether Clark’s actions amounted to an intentional tort, upon which Hackbart could recover damages.  Given this finding by the 10th Circuit, it is likely that players, against whom the Saints’ bounty program was executed, could seek similar legal relief under tort causes of action.

If players who were the victims of injuries sustained at the hands of the Saints’ bounty program were to bring legal action under tort causes of action, they would most likely bring causes of action for assault and battery.  Assault is defined as “a reasonable apprehension by a plaintiff of immediate harmful or offensive contact with his person.”  Battery is a harmful or offensive contact with a plaintiff’s person by a defendant without consent. 

In football, players consent to contact with other players, which elsewhere would be considered harmful or offensive.  For instance, an average citizen would not consent to being tackled on the sidewalk. Thus, if someone tackled them on the sidewalk, they would have a cause of action for battery.  However, NFL players’ consent to being tackled during games is what largely prevents players from bringing lawsuits for battery claims as a result of most NFL plays. 

However, NFL players do not consent to contact which is outside the realm of the standard NFL contact.  Thus, NFL players do not consent to being intentionally injured by their competitors.  Therefore, victims of the Saints’ bounty program would arguably have causes of action based in tort for assault and battery.

As noted above, tort law is based in common law.  Some states’ criminal statutes outlaw assault and battery.  As such, it is possible that the alleged perpetrators of the Saints’ bounty program could be subject to criminal sanctions.  These charges would have to be pursued by local prosecutors.  Given the time and resources involved in prosecuting cases, along with the NFL’s internal sanctioning system, it is possible that such causes of action will not be prosecuted.

The issue with assault and battery actions, if brought in Louisiana, is that the statute of limitations may have run.  In Louisiana, the statute of limitations for a civil cause of action for assault and battery (tort actions), is two years.  Criminal causes of action for assault and battery have a two or four year statute of limitations.  If a player was injured in 2009, it is possible that the statute of limitations expired.  However, a player could argue that the statute should be tolled, since facts demonstrating that the actions were intentional were not known until recently.  Nonetheless, the statute of limitations will likely hinder victims of the alleged bounty program from bringing lawsuits.

Visit tomorrow to learn what legal ramifications the Saints organization and its coaches may face as a result of the alleged bounty program.

2 thoughts on “Bounty Gate: The Potential Legal Ramifications of the New Orleans Saints’ Bounty Program (Part 1)

  1. Very interesting stuff. A nice read as well. I’m currently finishing up my Masters in Sport Administration and I’m recalling a lot of information I reviewed in my Sport Law class. It’s nice to read up-to-date cases on Law and Sport. I would like to read more, so keep it coming!

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