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Opinion: Who are the real winners in the NFL?

Sean Payton is introduced as the new head coach of the Denver Broncos during a news conference this week.
David Zalubowski
/
AP
Sean Payton is introduced as the new head coach of the Denver Broncos during a news conference this week.

The Philadelphia Eagles are slight favorites to win the Super Bowltomorrow. But Sean Payton has already won big.

The former head coach of the New Orleans Saints, with whom he won a Super Bowl, has signed a five-year, estimated $18 million-per-year contract to coach the Denver Broncos.

He becomes the Broncos' coach at the end of a football season in which even more attention has been drawn to the toll the game can inflict on players, especially after Damar Hamlin, the Buffalo Bills safety, suffered a cardiac arrest after a tackle last month.

Hamlin appeared at the NFL Honors ceremony this week, and spoke of how grateful he feels to be alive.

Payton won seven division titles with New Orleans, as well as a Super Bowl. He was 2006 NFL coach of the year. But he was suspended by the NFL for the 2012 season over what became known as Bountygate.

An NFL investigation found more than 20 Saints players set up cash bounties to entice teammates to injure opposing players so painfully and seriously, they'd be taken out of the game.

$1,000 cash was the typical payoff if a player was carted off the field on a stretcher; $1,500 if the player was knocked out. The numbers went up for marquee players in playoff games.

Pro football is a violent enterprise. But offering players cash bounties to injure other players is still against the rules.

Payton was not accused of orchestrating the scheme, or offering his own cash prizes. But the NFL's investigation found he did not stop the bounties when he learned about them, or end the payoffs when so ordered by his team's owner. In fact, as the NFL investigation deepened, Payton advised assistant coaches, "Make sure our ducks are in a row."

Payton was the first head coach in decades to be suspended. It cost him nearly $8 million in salary. He helped coach his son's sixth-grade team during his year off, served his suspension, and returned to the game at which he excels.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told a press conference this week that injuries in the NFL have been down 6% this year.

But if you watch the Super Bowl tomorrow — and despite many misgivings, I will — you might consider Payton's pricey new contract and wonder if it means the NFL has moved much beyond seeing the breaks, sprains and concussions of its own players as being just part of the game.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.