By Brandon Niles, Explorebigsky.com Sports Writer

Recently, the New Orleans Saints have been plagued by a scandal involving their former defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams. Williams has been accused of setting bounties on opposing players, essentially offering monetary rewards to his players in exchange for inflicting injuries on the other team.

Williams and the Saints have since been punished to an unprecedented degree. On top of hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines levied against the team, the NFL has also suspended Williams indefinitely.

Williams wasn’t the only person to be suspended in the wake of this scandal. Head coach Sean Payton, who was lauded for bringing the Saints their first Super Bowl title two years ago, will be suspended without pay for the entirety of next year. The Saints’ assistant head coach Joe Vitt will also serve a six game suspension.

The team was also lost second round choices in the 2012 and 2013 drafts. Combined, these penalties are unprecedented and make the New England Patriots Spygate scandal from 2007 seem like a slap on the wrist. More consequences may follow. Players for the Saints have yet to receive direct punishment, and as the NFL continues to investigate this, the likelihood increases that some of the players involved will serve suspensions.

Bounty systems have probably been a part of the NFL to some degree for decades. Football is a violent sport, and the potential for injuries has increased as players have become bigger, stronger and faster. However, what Williams and the Saints have done is beyond gamesmanship and competitive fire. Specifically targeting injured players or providing incentives for knocking players out of games, as Williams is accused of, is abhorrent. There’s no place in sports for this kind of mentality.

The question arises as to where the line is between intense athlete and sadistic headhunter. As kids grow up in the game of football, they’re consistently taught to play with intensity; to hit hard and play fast. At what point do we take ownership for altering the minds of the players and coaches who are a part of this game? Perhaps it’s too much to ask of these individuals to tow that line for so long without losing track of where the edge really is.

I’m not justifying Williams’ actions, but when I look around the league and I see players being called ruthless and dirty, I have to wonder if we’ve created this problem. Bone-crunching hits make the highlight reels and are the topic of water cooler talk every Monday morning. As we encourage these players to hit harder and add more and more danger to the sport we love, are we inevitably blurring the difference between sport and violence? During this time when Williams has become the full representation of the worst in all of us, it’s time to be introspective and remember that player safety might run deeper than one man’s quest to injure the competition.