The fact that Williams sent on an apology statement is enormous in terms of culpability, because, in his short statement expressing regret, there comes the admission of guilt.
While thousands of pages of documents and a systematic team-wide knowledge of the process are damning, the news that the Saints had such a bounty system in place isn't that new. Prior to the Vikings-Saints NFC Championship in January 2010, there were a lot of rumors of just that – Williams had a merit system with his defense to lay big hits on opposing players. In the case of the Vikings, it was Brett Favre, backed by reports that Jonathan Vilma threw $10,000 in cash on a table in front of defensive teammates as a bounty on any player who could knock Favre out of the game. Anyone who saw that game knows that no Saints defender collected on the bounty, but it wasn't the result of a lack of trying and low hits that put Favre in significant jeopardy.
So pervasive were the rumors heard by Vikings players from fellow players that it was one of the first questions I asked Remi Ayodele – the "high guy" in one of the "high-low" hits that appeared to be intentionally done to incapacitate Favre in the NFC title game. What I remember most about that moment was Ayodele's reaction. I asked him about whether there was an incentive program, which Favre and Vikings officials claimed after the game, for Saints players.
Ayodele seemed momentarily surprised by the question with his facial reaction, but what he did next was more interesting. As with most reporters, I carry a recording device with me to make sure I get quotes right. Ayodele smiled and shrugged and, as he started to give his answer, he leaned into my recorder and said, "I don't know anything about that." I took from his reaction and response that he believed a real answer wasn't really any of my business. When players don't want to answer questions, each one reacts differently. When they look directly into a camera or, in this case lean into the microphone, they're making a point. His smile and "I don't know" shrug spoke more than his words and reminded me of a Mafia-style code of silence and vendetta. I got the distinct impression that he wasn't going to lie, but he gave a classic "non-denial denial." He didn't say, "No. That never happened." He said he knew nothing – the Sergeant Schultz defense.
What is going to make this incident so unique and unprecedented is that it was so widespread and the punitive action could take place against many, not just one or two rogues. As this story continues to unfold, the concentric circles of culpability are going to increase and run deeper.
To date, the worst offense of organizational misconduct was the Spygate scandal involving the Patriots, in which both the Jets and Rams accused the Patriots of cheating and an NFL investigation found enough evidence to take away New England's first-round draft pick the following year as punishment. By comparison, the Patriots' Spygate scandal is small potatoes.
There are numerous facets to this story that are going to test the authority of Commissioner Roger Goodell, because, while the loss of New England's first-round draft pick was considered stiff, the punishment for this long-running practice of unsportsmanlike misconduct – offering incentives to players who don't just deliver big hits to opponents, but injure them and knock them out of games – is exponentially more severe and disturbing.
The biggest immediate issue is that it is the offseason and a lot of NFL media types are looking for a good story. You can bet a ton of players are being contacted. We've already tried, with mixed results. In less than 24 hours, not only has Williams delivered a mea culpa confession, but Vilma has been identified as a co-conspirator who offered a big cash bounty to cripple Favre, and the report also stated that veteran Kurt Warner was similarly targeted, that general manager Mickey Loomis lied about knowledge of the bounty to both Saints owner Tom Benson and the NFL's investigative team and a report surfaced that Williams had a similar bounty program when the defensive coordinator for the Redskins.
This is a story that isn't going to simply go away any time soon. The NFL, in conjunction with the NFL Players Association, is going to have to send a message that this type of long-term systematic head-hunting won't be allowed. At a time when the NFL is trying to clean up its game and take away the kind of hits that can potentially end careers, you can bet the league is going to take a dim view of what has taken place on Williams' watch and the punishment could be swift, far-reaching and severe. Anything less will only encourage repeat offenders, that last thing the NFL wants.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.