By Simon Evans
(Reuters) - New Orleans Saints players were involved in an illegal "bounty" system that rewarded individuals for injuring opponents, the National Football League (NFL) said on Friday.
The league said an investigation into the past three NFL seasons revealed between 22 and 27 Saints defensive players, as well as at least one assistant coach, maintained the program.
"This improper 'Pay for Performance' program included 'bounty' payments to players for inflicting injuries on opposing players that would result in them being removed from a game," the NFL said in a statement.
"The findings - corroborated by multiple independent sources - have been presented to (NFL) Commissioner Roger Goodell, who will determine the appropriate discipline for the violation."
Discipline could include fines, suspensions and forfeiture of draft choices.
According to the report, the program was administered by then-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams with the knowledge of other defensive coaches. It said players put money into a pool and received payment from it based on their play.
The investigation showed Saints defensive players received cash payments for certain achievements including interceptions and recoveries. The program also included "bounty" payments for "cart-offs" and "knockouts" -- plays on which the opposing players were forced to leave the game.
The cash rewards, which violate long-standing NFL rules and are inconsistent with the collective bargaining agreement, were in the $1,000-$1,500 range with payouts doubling or tripling in the playoffs, according to the statement.
"It was a terrible mistake, and we knew it was wrong while we were doing it. Instead of getting caught up in it, I should have stopped it," said Williams, who is currently the defensive coordinator with the St. Louis Rams.
"I take full responsibility for my role. I am truly sorry. I have learned a hard lesson and I guarantee that I will never participate in or allow this kind of activity to happen again."
Goodell said such behaviour would not be tolerated and has advised the Saints, won the Super Bowl at the end of the 2009 season, that he will hold further proceedings to determine the discipline to be assessed against individuals and the club.
"It is our responsibility to protect player safety and the integrity of our game, and this type of conduct will not be tolerated," he 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."
According to the NFL, Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis did not stop the bounty program when told to by team owner Tom Benson, who the league said took action when informed of its existence. It also said head coach Sean Payton was aware of the allegations but did not try to stop the program.
"I have offered and the NFL has received our full cooperation in their investigation," Benson said in a statement.
"While the findings may be troubling, we look forward to putting this behind us and winning more championships in the future for our fans."
Former Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner, who received a particularly heavy hit in his final NFL game, against the Saints, said he was not shocked by the news.
"It's definitely disappointing, but I won't say that I'm completely surprised," Warner told KTAR radio in Phoenix.
"Not necessarily the Saints, but I'm not surprised that there were teams out there doing those kinds of things behind closed doors.
"And I'm not going to tell you that I haven't believed that there was probably defensive players that got together and said, 'Hey, you know, a thousand bucks for the first guy to knock Kurt out of a football game.' I'm sure that's been a part of our league for a long time."
(Reporting by Simon Evans in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida; Editing by Frank Pingue)