NEW YORK — Roger Goodell sent a message to every coach and player in the NFL: safety first.
The NFL commissioner stuck with his punishments for New Orleans' pay-for-pain bounties on Monday, rejecting Saints coach Sean Payton's appeal of an unprecedented season-long suspension. A league investigation found that, under Payton's watch, an assistant ran a program offering cash payouts for hits that knocked targeted opponents out of games or hurt them so badly they needed help getting to the sideline.
Next on Goodell's agenda: discipline for players involved in the bounty program that began in 2009, the season the Saints won the Super Bowl.
Given recent history, at least some of those penalties are likely to be tough, too.
The Saints case represents perhaps the starkest example yet of the sea change that the NFL has undergone since medical research and media reports on the long-term damage suffered by football players through concussions began to gain attention.
As recently as October 2009, while testifying before Congress, Goodell did not acknowledge a link between head injuries on the field and brain diseases later in life. And hundreds of NFL retirees are now suing the league for health problems they say began with their playing careers.
Yet the league has taken a series of steps to better protect players in the past couple of years, and just last month expanded the definition of "defenseless players" who may not be hit in the head or neck and cannot be hit by someone leading with a helmet.
While NFL veterans say off-the-books incentives have been around for years, and some current players claim tough talk about hitting opponents where they are injured happens in locker rooms throughout the league, Goodell responded to the Saints case by handing out stern penalties.
In addition to upholding Payton's suspension, which begins next Monday and runs through the Super Bowl in February 2013 — by coincidence, in New Orleans — Goodell also affirmed suspensions of eight games for Saints general manager Mickey Loomis and six games for assistant head coach Joe Vitt. He also kept in place a $500,000 fine for the franchise and the loss of draft picks this year and next.
Loomis, who along with the team declined comment Monday, and Vitt begin their suspensions after the preseason ends.
Former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who left the Saints in January to join the St. Louis Rams, ran the bounty program and has been suspended indefinitely. He did not appeal.
Suspensions for New Orleans players who participated in the bounty pool could be coming within days.
Goodell set a precedent last season when he made Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh sit out for two games after stomping on an opponent, and Steelers linebacker James Harrison one game for a brutal tackle that gave Browns quarterback Colt McCoy a concussion.
The NFL has said as many as 27 players also could be sanctioned in the scandal. That might include former Saints defensive regulars who have signed elsewhere.
The league's investigation found that Williams' bounty system, which ran from 2009 through 2011, offered cash payments of $1,500 for "knockouts," in which an opposing player was knocked out of a game, or $1,000 for "cart-offs," in which an opponent needed help off the field. The league has said the bounty pool grew as large as $50,000.
The investigation also found that Payton initially lied about the existence of a bounty program and instructed his defensive assistants to do the same.
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