Jonathan Vilma, the New Orleans Saints’ defensive captain, was suspended by the NFL without pay for the 2012 season Wednesday for his role in helping former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams in “establishing and funding’’ the team’s bounty program that has rocked the Saints this offseason and also led to the suspension of coach Sean Payton.
Vilma’s suspension is the longest of those imposed on four players - Cleveland’s Scott Fujita and Green Bay’s Anthony Hargrove, both former Saints; and New Orleans’s Will Smith received lesser penalties. The league said they were the most deeply involved in the bounties while they were with the Saints. The league has already suspended Payton (for the season), general manager Mickey Loomis (eight games) and the assistant head coach Joe Vitt (six games). When Vitt returns, he will fill in for Payton.
The suspensions of the players were the final, complicated step for the league, which has sought to send a stern message about player safety at a time when it is facing lawsuits from more than 1,000 former players related to head injuries.
“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,’’ commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement.
The players are expected to appeal their suspensions and have three days to inform the league. The appeals, however, will have to be made to Goodell because the league said their action was “conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the NFL.’’
“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,’’ said union executive director DeMaurice Smith. “We have made it clear that punishment without evidence is not fair.’’
The NFL sought to blunt that argument. In a memo sent to the 32 teams about the suspensions, Goodell said that the NFL had brought in Mary Jo White, a former US attorney in New York, early in the investigation to “ensure both the fairness of the process and the reliability of the information on which our decisions were made in the Saints matter.’’ The league said its investigation revealed multiple independent sources who confirmed that Vilma twice offered $10,000 of his own money for hits that would knock out opposing quarterbacks - Arizona’s Kurt Warner in a playoff game in January 2010 and Minnesota’s Brett Favre in the NFC Championship game the next week.
“I intend to fight this injustice, to defend my reputation, to stand up for my team and my profession and to send a clear signal to the commissioner that the process has failed,’’ ’ said Vilma.
Hargrove was suspended for the first eight games of the season. The league said Hargrove submitted a signed declaration to the league that confirmed the existence, and his participation in, the bounty program. The league said its evidence showed that Hargrove told at least one player on another team that Favre was a target. The league also said Hargrove obstructed the investigation when it began in 2010 by lying to investigators.
Smith was suspended for the first four games. The league said he, too, assisted Williams in establishing and financing the scheme and pledged “significant sums’’ to the pool for “cart-offs’’ and “knockouts,’’ plays in which an opponent was injured.
Fujita, a linebacker who is also a prominent in the players’ union, was suspended for the first three games of the season. The NFL said Fujita pledged “a significant amount of money’’ to the pay-for-performance/bounty pool during the 2009 playoffs.
Vilma will miss out on $1.6 million in base salary in 2012, while Fujita stands to lose more than $640,000, Hargrove more than $385,000, and Smith more than $190,000.
Fujita, Hargrove, and Smith are allowed to participate in offseason activity, including preseason games, before their suspensions take effect. Vilma, though, is suspended immediately.
Saints players expressed shock at the suspensions - including a Twitter message from running back Pierre Thomas that said, “we might as well start playing two-hand tag cause this is madness!!’’ - but reaction around the league was mixed. Giants quarterback Eli Manning agreed with the penalties.
“What Roger Goodell has done - and he’s been harsh on this whole bounty thing - I think he’s doing the right thing to make sure that this doesn’t happen ever again,’’ Manning said.Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.