On Sundays in the fall, hunting for touchdowns, sacks, interceptions, fumbles, and yards is an acceptable practice. Hunting for concussions and broken bones isn’t, yet that was the bonus for between 22 and 27 defensive players on the New Orleans Saints over the last three years.

Boba Fett is jealous.

The NFL released the results of an investigation this afternoon which concluded that nearly the entire Saints defense and at least one assistant coach were involved in a bounty program since 2009, an incentive-based scheme that rewarded players for inflicting injuries on opponents.

Players were paid for both their performance, and also for hits that resulted in opposing players leaving the game. Cash was regularly contributed to a pool, and players were then given improper benefits for key defensive plays like interceptions and fumble recoveries, but they were also rewarded for “cart-offs” and “knockouts,” meaning any play that ended in their target on the other end of a hit being carted off the field or just simply knocked out.

Knockouts resulted in a payment of $1,000, and cart-offs would net the defensive player $1,500, while the total amount of funds in the pool may have reached $50,000. Wholesome fun for all.

In a league that’s placing an increased emphasis on player safety–especially as it relates to concussions–this won’t be handled lightly. Roger Goodell sounded like a very angry commissioner in his statement:

“It is our responsibility to protect player safety and the integrity of our game, and this type of conduct will not be tolerated. 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.”

The punishment has yet to be determined, but the Saints could lose a draft pick. The league’s statement laid out what’s going to happen next, and all the options sound like they’re really going to suck.

Commissioner Goodell has advised the Saints that he will hold further proceedings to determine the discipline to be assessed against individuals and the club. This will include conferring with the NFL Players Association and individual player leaders regarding appropriate discipline and remedial steps.

The discipline could include fines and suspensions and, in light of the competitive nature of the violation, forfeiture of draft choices. Any discipline may be appealed as provided for in the Constitution and By-Laws and Collective Bargaining Agreement. Any appeal would be heard and decided by the commissioner.

Commissioner Goodell also advised the Saints that he is retaining jurisdiction and reserving his authority to impose further discipline if additional information comes to his attention.

Yep, they’re screwed, and all because they chose to live back in the dark corners of the old school, a time when players high-fived after breaking bones, and a time when the league was populated with raving uncontrollable man-children who played with the same discipline as Ndamukong Suh. So basically, no discipline whatsoever.

The league’s investigation began in 2010 after allegations that New Orleans targeted key opposing players like Brett Favre and Kurt Warner, and it burned down a few forests, with the facts laid out on 18,000 documents that were over 50,000 pages long. The investigation determined that a clear and obvious violation has taken place, and the Saints blatantly disregarded a section of the rule book which states that…

“No bonus or award may directly or indirectly be offered, promised, announced,  or paid to a player for his or his team’s performance against a particular team or opposing player or a particular group thereof. No bonuses or awards may be offered or paid for on field misconduct (for example, personal fouls to or injuries inflicted on opposing players).”

When the allegations of improper conduct first came to the league’s attention, the initial investigation hit a dead end after the predicable denials. But now new information has landed on Goodell’s desk.

“Our security department interviewed numerous players and other individuals. At the time, those interviewed denied that any such program existed and the player that made the allegation retracted his earlier assertions. As a result, the allegations could not be proven. We recently received significant and credible new information and the investigation was re-opened during the latter part of the 2011 season.”

Gregg Williams, the Saints’ former defensive coordinator who’s now left for St. Louis, administered the bounty program with the knowledge of other defensive coordinators, which brings this to another level of darkness and sheer stupidity.

The existence of an overly masculine, tough, and thick-headed approach to football will always percolate in NFL locker rooms. This is what happens when America wants to see blood, and the players who populate those locker rooms are often raised in an environment that demands brute ruthlessness. But to think that this bounty practice was in place, and not one of the likely over 30 people involved had a moral conscience is more than a little astounding.

The Saints won the Super Bowl in 2009, and the chance to be world champions should have been more than enough motivation. Instead, they needed a gimmick, and they became the dogs chasing a bone tied to a slow-moving car.