New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma was suspended without pay for the entire 2012 season by the NFL, one of four players punished Wednesday for participating in the team's cash-for-hits bounty system.
Defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, now with the Green Bay Packers, was suspended for the first half of the 16-game season; Saints defensive end Will Smith was barred for the opening four games; and linebacker Scott Fujita, now with the Cleveland Browns, will miss the first three games. Like Vilma, they were suspended without pay.
All four players have three days to appeal NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's ruling, and the head of the NFL Players Association said the union would fight the penalties. Fujita is a member of the NFLPA's executive committee.
The league's statement said Vilma, Hargrove, Smith and Fujita were suspended because of "conduct detrimental to the NFL as a result of their leadership roles" with the bounties.
Goodell has made an effort to emphasize player safety in recent seasons. The NFL is facing dozens of lawsuits brought by more than 1,000 former players who say the league didn't do enough to warn them about - or protect them from - the dangers of concussions.
An NFL investigation determined that the Saints had a bounty system from 2009-11 that offered thousands of dollars to players for big hits that knocked opponents out of games. In March, Goodell suspended Saints head coach Sean Payton for all of next season, and levied other penalties against the club.
But no players were punished until Wednesday. Originally, the league said that 22 to 27 defensive players were involved in the illegal scheme, which was orchestrated by then-Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and started in the season New Orleans won its only Super Bowl championship.
Targeted opponents included quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton, Brett Favre and Kurt Warner. "Knockouts" were worth $1,500 and "cart-offs" $1,000, with payments doubled or tripled for the playoffs.
"In assessing player discipline, I focused on players who were in leadership positions at the Saints; contributed a particularly large sum of money toward the program; specifically contributed to a bounty on an opposing player; demonstrated a clear intent to participate in a program that potentially injured opposing players; sought rewards for doing so; and/or obstructed the 2010 investigation," Goodell said in a statement.
While the league said that its investigation showed "a significant number of players participated" in the bounties - by ponying up cash or collecting it - "the players disciplined participated at a different and more significant level."
According to the league, Saints defensive captain Vilma offered $10,000 in cash to any player who knocked then-Cardinals QB Warner out of a playoff game at the end of the 2009 season, and the same amount for knocking then-Vikings QB Favre out of that season's NFC championship game. The Saints were flagged for roughing Favre twice in that game, and the league later said they should have received another penalty for a brutal high-low hit from Remi Ayodele and Bobby McCray that hurt Favre's ankle. He was able to finish the game, but the Saints won in overtime en route to the NFL title.
According to the NFL, Fujita "pledged a significant amount of money to the prohibited pay-for-performance/bounty pool during the 2009 NFL Playoffs when he played for the Saints."
The league said Hargrove "actively obstructed the league's 2010 investigation into the program by being untruthful to investigators." He also "actively participated in the program while a member of the Saints," the league said, adding that he eventually "submitted a signed declaration to the league that established not only the existence of the program at the Saints, but also that he knew about and participated in it."
The NFL said that "multiple independent sources" said Smith "pledged significant sums to the program pool."
The league said no player agreed to be interviewed in person and the NFLPA did not share information from its own investigation.
After the NFL announced the players' suspensions, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith issued a statement saying the union "has still not received any detailed or specific evidence from the league of these specific players' involvement in an alleged pay-to-injure program. We have made it clear that punishment without evidence is not fair. We have spoken with our players and their representatives and we will vigorously protect and pursue all options on their behalf."
All payouts for specific performances in a game, including interceptions or causing fumbles, are against NFL rules. The NFL warns teams against such practices before each season, although in the aftermath of the revelations about the Saints, current and former players from various teams talked about that sort of thing happening frequently - just not on the same scale as was found in New Orleans.
Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning supported Goodell's decision.
"I think he's doing the right thing to make sure this doesn't happen ever again. There's no room for any kind of bounty system in the NFL. It's a physical sport and you've got to respect the game," the New York Giants quarterback said. "He's been harsh to try to make a statement saying there is no place for this in the game of football."
But James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who has been punished repeatedly for leveling hard hits on opponents, tweeted the penalties were "ridiculous."
In a memo sent Wednesday to the NFL's 32 teams, Goodell reminded them that "any program of non-contract bonuses, however it is characterized, is a violation of league rules" and said that every head coach must review those rules with assistants and players during mini-camp or preseason training camp.
Also, all players will be told how they can confidentially report rules violations.
In March, Goodell made Payton the first head coach suspended by the league for any reason, for trying to cover up the system of extra cash payouts. Goodell also indefinitely banned Williams, who was hired in January to run the St. Louis Rams' defense.
In addition, Goodell suspended Saints general manager Mickey Loomis for the first eight regular-season games next season and assistant coach Joe Vitt for the first six games. The Saints were fined $500,000 and lost two second-round draft picks.
Fujita, Hargrove, and Smith are allowed to participate in offseason activity, including preseason games, before their suspensions take effect. Vilma, though, is suspended immediately and will be reinstated after the coming season's Super Bowl - which, coincidentally, will be played in New Orleans.