New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton and other front-office members of the organization are already paying a heavy price for their involvement in a bounty scandal.
Now, it’s the players’ turn.
The NFL announced Wednesday that four current and former Saints players are being suspended for portions of the 2012 season.
The harshest penalty was levied to Saints middle linebacker Jon Vilma. He was banned for the entire 2012 campaign.
I am shocked and extremely disappointed by the NFL’s decision to suspend me for the 2012 season," Vilma said in a statement. "Commissioner Roger Goodell has refused to share any of the supposed evidence he claims supports this unprecedented punishment."
Saints defensive end Will Smith received a four-game suspension. Two ex-Saints — Green Bay defensive end Anthony Hargrove (eight games) and linebacker Scott Fujita (three) — also were sanctioned.
All four players are expected to appeal the suspensions and have three days to make that filing. The NFL Players Association, which has chided the league’s investigation and handling of the matter, is expected to work vehemently on trying to get the suspensions overturned. There also may be legal action taken by some or all of the players that falls outside the parameters of the league’s disciplinary policy.
"After seeing the NFL’s decision letters, the NFLPA has still not received any detailed or specific evidence from the league of these specific players’ involvement in an alleged pay-to-injure program," the NFLPA said in a statement following the league’s ruling.
"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."
Vilma’s suspension begins immediately. Smith, Hargrove and Fujita are allowed to remain working with their teams until the start of the regular season.
The punishment stems from varying degrees of involvement by the quartet in a bounty system that offered financial incentives for “knock-out” or “cart-off” hits on opposing offensive players between 2009 and 2011.
“It is the obligation of everyone, including the players on the field, to ensure that rules designed to promote player safety, fair play, and the integrity of the game are adhered to and effectively and consistently enforced,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a press release. “Respect for the men that play the game starts with the way players conduct themselves with each other on the field.”
As part of an investigation, the NFL uncovered that Vilma offered a $10,000 reward for any Saints player who knocked out Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner or Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre in two playoff games during the 2009 season. The league also claims that Vilma helped fund and establish the bounty system with ex-Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who was suspended indefinitely in March for his role as the program’s ring leader.
"The reason is clear: I never paid, or intended to pay, $10000, or any amount of money, to any player for knocking Kurt Warner, Brett Favre or any other player, out of the 2009 Divisional playoff game, 2010 NFL Championship Game, or any other game. I never set out to intentionally hurt any player and never enticed any teammate to intentionally hurt another player," Vilma’s statement read.
He also went on to say that never put money in a bounty pool or helped create one.
Smith was accused of doing the same thing as a Saints defensive captain.
“Multiple independent sources also confirmed that Smith pledged significant sums to the program pool for ‘cart-offs’ and ‘knockouts’ of opposing players,” the NFL’s press release said.
Fujita’s suspension stems from money he allegedly contributed into the bounty pool. Fujita also was the Saints’ NFLPA representative.
Hargrove’s punishment is more severe because he lied to the NFL about the existence of the program to league investigators in 2010. Hargrove also had signed a declaration denying the existence of the bounty system. The NFL announced that Hargrove told at least one other player on another team that there was a bounty on Favre in the NFC Championship Game.
Other players participated in the bounty program to varying degrees but aren’t facing suspension. Goodell said his player discipline focused on players who:
Held leadership positions for 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 and sought rewards for doing so.
Obstructed the 2010 investigation.
“No bounty program can exist without active player participation,” Goodell said. “The evidence clearly showed that the players being held accountable today willingly and enthusiastically embraced the bounty program. Players put the vast majority of the money into this program and they share responsibility for playing by the rules and protecting each other within those rules.”
The league announced that the NFLPA conducted its own investigation into the bounty scandal but failed to share its findings before the punishments were levied.
“A number of current and former players, including each player disciplined today, were offered the opportunity to be interviewed with counsel present,” the NFL release states. “One player (Hargrove) submitted a written statement in which he did not dispute the existence of the program, but no player agreed to be interviewed in person.”
Audio released last month by a documentary filmmaker revealed Williams insinuated that he would personally pay any player who forced San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith out of last season’s second-round playoff game. Williams also advocated blows to the head of specific 49ers players, which flew in the face of Goodell’s safety initiatives related to concussions.
Payton (one season), general manager Mickey Loomis (eight games) and assistant head coach Joe Vitt (six games) were punished for not doing enough to stop the bounty system after repeated NFL warnings. The Saints also were fined $500,000 and stripped of 2012 and 2013 second-round draft choices.
The NFL has said it may consider lessening the draft-pick penalty depending on whether the Saints comply with league rules and how the team fares in 2012.
Vitt is serving as the Saints’ interim head coach in Payton’s absence. The team has not decided who will handle the coaching duties when Vitt serves his suspension at the start of the regular season.
The NFL also announced Wednesday that a memo was sent to all 32 franchises Wednesday reemphasizing that any program involving non-contract bonuses violates league rules like higher-paid veterans contributing to a fund rewarding special-teams players for key tackles and forced turnovers.
Each NFL team will be required to review these rules with players and coaches before the start of the regular season. The league also will be developing programs to teach safe and fair play. The NFL said that several Saints employees have expressed “strong interest” in helping on that front.