Where is the line between being paid to hit someone and being paid to hurt someone?

In a sport where killer instinct is encouraged — a sport where the players who hit the hardest, force the most fumbles and play with the most aggression are the ones most sought after — is there really that much of a difference between being paid to tackle hard and being paid to hurt someone?

Well, the New Orleans Saints’ coaching staff certainly toed the line with their support of a bounty program that rewarded players for injuring specific opponents.

Evidence showed that, since 2009, the Saints had targeted such players as Kurt Warner, Brett Favre, Cam Newton, Reggie Bush and Aaron Rogers, providing thousands of player-donated dollars for “cart-offs” and “knockouts.”

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell concluded his two-year investigation of this program by lowering the hammer on the Saints, fining them $500,000 and taking away their second-round draft picks for the next two years.

Goodell suspended Saints head coach Sean Payton for the 2012-2013 season and general manager Mickey Loomis for the first eight games of the 2012 season. He based these suspensions on evidence that they both knew about the bounty system and turned a blind eye, even when ordered to extinguish it by team owner Tom Benson.

Goodell also told Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, the mastermind behind the slush fund that financed these bounty rewards, that he would never coach in the NFL again.

I support Goodell’s decision to boot Williams from the league, especially after hearing the audio clip of him encouraging his defense to “kill Frank Gore’s head” because “if you kill the head, the body will die.”

A difference certainly exists between telling your team to play with passion and telling your team to play with a dirty and blatant disregard for someone else’s life.

Williams seems a bit too disturbed and sadistic to be coaching at such a high level anyway.

But the events, now being referred to as “Bountygate,” seem to have the sports world reeling, and I don’t know how anyone could be surprised by it.

It’s football; with all the injuries that occur every year, are you really surprised that a team was rewarding their mammoth linebackers for inflicting pain on opposing star players?

If a defensive coordinator were to incentivize forced fumbles — say, providing $5,000 for the player with the most bone-shattering blindsides that strip the football — it’s sort of the same thing without identifying a specific body part like Williams had been known to do.

Youngstown State University head football coach Eric Wolford said the incident is unfortunate.

“A lot of that stuff has been going on, and I don’t think it’s ever been a significant amount of money,” he said. “But like anything right now in football and all athletics, you have to really watch everything you say and do.”

When asked about the locker room speech by Williams to his players, Wolford said that people who have never been involved with football and don’t understand its intensity may take it out of context.

“I’m not going to say I haven’t heard those types of things before,” he said. “I don’t think it’s meant deliberately to hurt someone. It’s just meant to get people riled up and get them frothing at the mouth and passionate. I think some of it is over-exaggerated.”

Joe Conroy, coordinator of programs and facilities at YSU, was a linebacker for the University of Toledo from 1974 to 1978. He said he agrees that the sport of football is difficult to understand without having played it at a high level.

“Football has always been, ‘Kill the opponent,’” he said. “Football is not a contact sport; it’s a violent sport.”

Conroy said the Saints’ suspension has a lot to do with money.

“Football is resorting to flag football,” he said. “They’re trying to save the star player and ticket revenue.”

Junior Danny Fernback played YSU football in 2010 and 2011. He said the punishment issued by Goodell was appropriate.

“The big reason against a bounty is because the bounty is created to take cheap shots and purposely injure other players,” he said. “That doesn’t fall under the category of ‘tough player’ or ‘hard-nosed football’; that falls more under the category of ‘douchebag.’”

Though I don’t agree with incentivizing the intentional injuring of important players, I agree with Conroy that the motivation for this ruling’s being so harsh is probably based on the need for star players to be on the field in order to attract fans.

I would agree more with Goodell’s ruling if he were to admit that fact. Without it, I think the penalties given to Payton and Loomis seem to be a bit brash because they weren’t the ones verbally telling their players to attack other players’ heads.

But, in the same way Joe Paterno was punished for the actions of Jerry Sandusky, it seems inevitable that Payton and Loomis will be unsuccessful in their appeal of Goodell’s ruling because they made no attempt to thwart Williams’ bounty program.

Hopefully, “Bountygate” won’t tarnish Payton’s career.