NEW YORK – 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 this 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. All of the suspensions are without pay.
All four players have three days to appeal NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's ruling.
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, The NFL said that "multiple independent sources" said Smith "pledged significant sums to the program pool."
In March, Goodell made Payton the first head coach suspended by the league for any reason, accused of 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.