It's not exactly surprising that players have put up bounties on big hits and injuries. Though it's not out in the open like the New Orleans Saints pay-for-performance program uncovered by an NFL investigation, there have always been murmurs of bonuses for big plays. This is football, after all: a sport where violence and injuries are part of the game, and taking out a star player on the opposing team is advantageous in a competitive sense.
It'd be naive to think this is a big deal only because it's breaking some new ground. It's not. However, there's a difference in this case, besides the fact that the Saints were actually caught.
Stephen White explains why this case is different from the typical notion of a bounty system.
Now I can totally see why this is a big deal. People outside the team were putting in on the bounties. Imagine if they then bet on the game— Stephen White (@sgw94) March 3, 2012
And without confirming or denying any first hand knowledge of how bounties usually work, usually its just the players putting in on it— Stephen White (@sgw94) March 3, 2012
White is a former player who would know how these hypothetical bounties would work. It's one thing for the players to talk amongst themselves about bounties. It's another for coaches to get involved. And it's even worse when someone from outside the organization, in this case Mike Ornstein, is putting up large sums of money to take out an opposing players.
There are different levels of 'bad' here, and this case seems to be one of the worst.