The NFL dropped the hammer on the New Orleans Saints again Wednesday, punishing four players for their role in the bounty scandal, including a full-season suspension of linebacker and defensive captain Jonathan Vilma.
Defensive linemen Anthony Hargrove and Will Smith got eight- and four-game suspensions, respectively, and linebacker Scott Fujita was suspended for three games.
Hargrove played for the Seattle Seahawks last season and now plays for Green Bay. Fujita plays for Cleveland.
The howls of protest from the punished players and their union were immediate and strident.
Vilma, who had been largely silent to this point in the face of allegations that he plunked down $10,000 to entice teammates into knocking Kurt Warner and Brett Favre out of playoff games, vowed to “fight this injustice.”
Through his lawyer, Vilma said he “never paid, or intended to pay” a bounty to knock a quarterback out of a game.
“I never set out to intentionally hurt any player and never enticed any teammate to intentionally hurt another player,” he said in a written statement. “I also never put any money into a bounty pool or helped to create a bounty pool intended to pay out money for injuring other players.”
Smith called the accusations against him “100 percent false.”
In the cases of Vilma and Smith, the league cited “multiple independent sources” who said those players helped fund the bounty program.
Saints coach Sean Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams have acknowledged their roles in the improper bounty program, and the recently released audiotape of Williams imploring his players to injure San Francisco players is graphic and damning.
Payton was suspended for a year, Loomis for eight games and Williams indefinitely.
The sanctions of players involved was the final puzzle piece.
“In assessing player discipline,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said, “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.”
The league said that Hargrove submitted a signed declaration that established not only the existence of the program at the Saints but also that he knew about it and participated. Further, the league said Hargrove “actively obstructed the league’s 2010 investigation into the program by being untruthful to investigators.”
The league said Smith and Fujita pledged significant sums to the program pool for “cart-offs” and “knockouts” of opposing players.