CHICAGO (CBS) — At the time, Roman Harper’s words seemed simply cliched.

The New Orleans Saints safety, sitting in front of his locker room cubicle after that Sept. 18 game, told me he simply put a “clean, hard hit” on Bears receiver Earl Bennett.

“That’s how we’re taught to play,” Harper said.

Harper didn’t mention that he also had pocketed enough cash from knocking Bennett out of the game with what was basically a spear to the sternum to pick up the check for the entire Saints defense at K-Paul, one of New Orleans’ priciest eating establishments.

According to the Saints bounty pay scale, Harper likely cashed anywhere from $1,000 to $1,500 for laying out Bennett, who would miss most of the rest of that game and another five due to the injury sustained from Harper’s helmet.

My question to Harper was posed just minutes after I spent time across the Superdome trying to listen to Bears quarterback Jay Cutler’s raspy recap of the loss to the Saints.

Harper also was penalized for roughing the passer in that game. Don’t know if he was the one who kicked Cutler in the throat to cause a couple weeks worth of laryngitis for the Bears QB.

Harper’s talk was cheap that day but now the league is ready to hit back.

The NFL announced Friday it had determined that the Saints had violated league rules with their bounty program, which was funded primarily by players. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is to determine disciplinary measures that could include fines, suspensions or the forfeiture of draft choices by the Saints.

The guess here is Saints coach Sean Payton will write a check with a lot more zeros than the thousand or so Harper made for bulldozing Bennett.

According to Dan Pompei, Chicago Tribune NFL columnist and Mully and Hanley contributor, several people within the league said Saturday they would not be surprised to see Goodell give the Saints a more severe punishment than he gave to the New England Patriots in 2007 for the “Spygate” videotaping scandal. The league determined the Patriots improperly videotaped opponents’ coaching signals. Goodell stripped the Patriots of a first-round draft pick and assessed fines totaling $750,000, including $500,000 to Coach Bill Belichick and $250,000 to the team.

The league cited Payton and General Manager Mickey Loomis for failing to take steps to halt the program started under defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Its investigation determined that owner Tom Benson was unaware of it until being informed of it by the NFL. The NFL’s investigation of the Saints began in early 2010 and included the review of 18,000 documents with more than 50,000 pages, according to the league.

Williams, now the defensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams, issued a written statement Friday apologizing for the Saints’ program.

Former defensive end Phillip Daniels acknowledged the practice while defending Williams, saying the approach promoted “good, hard football” and clean play.

The NFL is also now looking to determine if the Washington Redskins also had a bounty system in place when Williams was the defensive coordinator there. They most certainly did according to former NFL safety and current Score expert Matt Bowen, who defended the practice in his Sunday Chicago Tribune column.

Bowen wrote: “That’s right. We got paid for big hits, clean hits by the rule book.

Money came in for more than watching a guy leave the field. We earned extra for interceptions, sacks and forced fumbles. If the till wasn’t paid out, we just rolled it over.

Money jumped in the playoffs. A bigger stage equaled more coin. Instead of a few hundred dollars, now you got a thousand, maybe more, depending on the player.

That’s the truth. I can’t sugarcoat this. It was a system we all bought into.

I ate it up.

It’s hard not to, not when you’re playing for a coach like Gregg Williams, my defensive coordinator while I was with the Washington Redskins.

Williams is an excellent motivator. You do what he wants: play tough, push the envelope and carry a swagger that every opponent sees on tape. When you lined up against us, you knew we were coming after you. It was our gig, our plan, our way to motivate, to extra-motivate.

I wanted to be That Guy for him, playing the game with an attitude opposing players absolutely feared. If that meant playing through the whistle or going low on a tackle, I did it.”

Bowen’s dedication to his coach is admirable.

It is also severely shortsighted.

There is little doubt Williams was not the only NFL defensive coordinator bribing his players to stretch the rules.

“It’s something that was an assumed part of the game,” former San Francisco 49ers offensive lineman Randy Cross said. “It has become a discouraged part of the game. How fans should look at this is more along the lines of player safety. It always hurts to be a precedent, and I think this is going to hurt some people pretty bad when the punishments [to the Saints] come down.”

Former NFL lineman Damien Woody, now an NFL analyst for ESPN, wrote Friday on Twitter: “This ‘bounty’ program happens all around the league. . . not surprising.”

How can some of these same players, who had happily cashed in for sidelining an opponent, now turn around and claim in lawsuits the NFL is to blame for long-term physical and mental impairment?

This investigation comes at a time when the NFL has taken a series of steps to attempt to make the game safer by dealing more effectively with concussions suffered by players.

“It’s such a different game than it was in the past,” Cross said. “That game from back then is the Wild West compared to now. It’s shocking that it would be documented to this extent. But did it go on? Yeah, I’m not deluded into thinking that it didn’t go on in the past.”

The practice of trying to intentionally injure players is inexcusable. The NFL game maims men enough with those “clean, hard hits” Harper had given mere lip service to Sept. 18.

No fan wants to see the NFL turn into a flag football league.

But better helmets and all the safety equipment the league can develop won’t mean much moving forward if the millionaire players are still willing send one of their own to the hospital for was amounts to lunch money.

Even if it is lunch at K-Paul’s.

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