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The NFL on Wednesday hit the New Orleans Saints and head coach Sean Payton with severe penalties in the wake of a bounty scandal. Speculation continues about possible legal action.
The Saints bounty program involved the "targeting of players for injury and cash rewards over a three-year period, the involvement of the coaching staff, and three years of denials," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in announcing the harshest penalties in league history. They include a fine against the franchise, and suspensions without pay.
As for possible legal consequences, this blog has discussed potential assault and battery charges against players who took part in the bounty program. But do the NFL's penalties also suggest elements of a possible conspiracy?
In general, a conspiracy exists when two or more people agree to commit an illegal act like assault or battery, and take some sort of action in furtherance of the conspiracy. The illegal act itself does not have to occur.
In the New Orleans Saints bounty program, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams put money into the scheme and allegedly encouraged his players to knock specific opponents out of the game, Sports Illustrated reports. Some players were also reportedly offered cash for the scheme.
An agreement to commit assault or battery, and an exchange of money between Williams and his players, may technically fulfill the elements of a conspiracy.
While Saints head coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis may not have had direct roles in the bounty program, they likely knew about the scheme and did nothing to stop it, according to SI. That could make them liable under Louisiana's criminal negligence law, which punishes acts that show a cruel disregard for others' safety.
But as sports law expert Gabe Feldman explained for NFL.com, U.S. courts "tend to defer to league self-regulation," unless the offensive conduct goes way beyond what's considered "part of the game."
As the NFL now considers punishments for the 22 to 27 players allegedly involved in the Saints bounty program, we'll have to wait and see if any legal actions arise.