New York, NY – New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma has been suspended for the entire season as a result of his participation in the club's bounty program.
Vilma, said to have offered $10,000 in cash to any player who knocked Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner out of a 2009 divisional playoff game, was one of four players to receive suspensions from the league and was easily penalized the hardest.
Defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, now with Green Bay, has been suspended eight games, defensive end Will Smith was hit with a four-game ban and linebacker Scott Fujita, now playing for Cleveland, will sit for the first three games of the 2012 campaign.
All of the suspensions are without pay and stem from the bounty system run from 2009-11 by former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who was suspended indefinitely by commissioner Roger Goodell in March. Saints head coach Sean Payton was also suspended for a year for his knowledge of the program.
Similar to Payton's ban, Vilma's year-long penalty will begin immediately. The three other players can participate in offseason programs with their respective teams, including preseason games, prior to the suspensions taking effect.
Each of the players can appeal the decision within three days.
"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," Goodell said in a statement issued Wednesday. "Respect for the men that play the game starts with the way players conduct themselves with each other on the field."
The evidence, according to the league's release, conclusively demonstrated that from 2009-11 Saints players, of their own accord, pledged significant amounts of their own money toward bounties, that players accepted payments for "cart-offs" and "knockouts" of injured opposing players, and that the payout amounts doubled and tripled for playoff games.
While a significant number of players participated in the pay-for-performance program, whether by contributing funds to the pool or collecting cash rewards, the players disciplined participated at a different and more significant level, Goodell noted.
"In assessing player discipline," 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."
Vilma was accountable for the most noteworthy contribution. As a captain of the defensive unit, he is said to have helped establish and fund the program. In addition to his $10,000 bounty on Warner, sources told the NFL that he also pledged the same amount on then-Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre in the NFC Championship game the following week.
Hargrove submitted a signed declaration to the league that established not only the existence of the program, but also that he knew about and participated in it. The evidence showed that Hargrove told at least one player on another team that Favre was a target of a large bounty. Hargrove also actively obstructed the league's 2010 investigation into the program by being untruthful to investigators.
The NFL also said sources confirmed that Smith, also a defensive captain, and Fujita each pledged significant sums to the program.
"No bounty program can exist without active player participation," Goodell continued. "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."
Goodell also sent the NFL Players Association a list of participating players that were not disciplined.
The initial penalties for the team and coaches were issued on March 21. In addition to Payton and Williams, general manager Mickey Loomis was suspended for the first eight games and assistant head coach Joe Vitt was slapped with a six-game ban. Vitt was named interim head coach in place of Payton for the 2012 season. The Saints were also fined $500,000 and docked second-round draft picks in 2012 and 2013.