By Bruce Alpert
The Senate is summoning major sports leaders to answer questions about whether payments for injuring opposing players ought to be made a federal crime.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., announced the hearing Thursday to address "disturbing disclosures" that New Orleans Saints players were paid a "bounty" for hits that injured opponents. The hearing, which will include officials not only from the National Football League, but the National Basketball Association, National Hockey League and National Collegiate Athletic Association, would be held sometime after the congressional Easter recess.
In a Senate floor speech, Durbin credited the NFL for imposing stiff penalties in the Saints case, including a season-long suspension for head coach Sean Payton. But he expressed concern with reports that bounty systems, which he called "reprehensible," exist on other NFL teams, as well.
"Aggressiveness and competitiveness is an integral part of many sporting contests, but bribing players to intentionally hurt their opponents cannot be tolerated," Durbin said.
Some members of the Louisiana congressional delegation didn't take kindly to Durbin's plan to conduct a hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Crime.
"Most Americans think the government is already too involved in their everyday lives, from the doctor's office to small businesses," Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said.
Vitter was even harsher in comments on his Twitter account: " and jog my memory. Did Sen. Durbin call for a Senate hearing when his home-state Bears were selling drugs?" The reference was to the December arrest of Chicago Bears wide receiver Sam Hurd on charges of drug dealing.
"I won't let him single out our Saints," said Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans. "A congressional hearing, really?"
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said while the bounty issue is a "serious matter, the NFL has taken decisive action on player safety. The Senate has many more pressing challenges before it that we must focus on."
Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, said for a legislative body that hasn't passed a budget in three years, "I think it's shocking to be piling on the damage that already has been directed at us."
Rep. Jeff Landry, R-New Iberia, said while he's disappointed that the NFL suspended Payton for a full season, there's no doubt the league is aggressively dealing with the bounty issue. "The elitist leaders of Congress drive me crazy," Landry said.
In his Senate speech, Durbin, the assistant Senate majority leader, acknowledges that football is a rough sport, pointing to his "bum knee" from his high school football days.
"Accidents will happen, and injuries will happen," Durbin said. "But I never dreamed that there would be some conspiracy, some bribery involved in some other player trying to intentionally hurt me or take me out of the game. That goes way beyond sports."
Durbin said Congress decades ago made it a federal crime to influence the outcome of a sporting event through bribery. Now, he said, it is time to determine whether bounty systems are potentially as corrosive as paying bribes.
The Saints' conduct takes bounty systems to an "outrageous level that none of us ever anticipated," Durbin said.
Asked about the NFL's reaction, spokesman Greg Aiello said that league Commissioner Roger Goodell has "taken strong action to ensure that bounties are eliminated from the NFL.
"We have not heard from Sen. Durbin but would be pleased to discuss the matter with him," Aiello said.
The Durbin announcement made no reference to calling officials from the Saints or any specific team.
Dan Lebowitz, director of Sports in Society at Northeastern University in Boston, said that while ethical lapses and dangerous behavior are clearly not limited to the sports world, the bounty scandal in the NFL is such a high-profile issue that it is almost irresistible for Congress to take a look. "While I commend Sen. Durbin for looking at this issue, I think there's little doubt that Commissioner Goodell has acted aggressively and proactively" on bounties and other major issues facing the league.