New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma was suspended without pay for the entire 2012 season by the NFL, one of four players punished on 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 the 16-game 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. Like Vilma, they were suspended without pay.
Vilma released a statement later Wednesday denying any role in the alleged bounty program and vowing to fight his suspension.
"I am shocked and extremely disappointed by the NFL's decision to suspend me for the 2012 season. Commissioner Roger Goodell has refused to share any of the supposed evidence he claims supports this unprecedented punishment. The reason is clear: I never paid, or intended to pay, $10,000, 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 NFC 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. 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. I have always conducted myself in a professional and proud manner. 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, to the detriment of me, my teammates, the New Orleans Saints and the game."
All four player suspensions will be appealed, according to an NFL source, who told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter, "Get ready for a massive multiple legal battle over this on several fronts."
In a statement released on Wednesday afternoon, DeMaurice Smith, the head of the NFL Players Association, said the union would fight the penalties. Fujita is a member of the NFLPA's executive committee.
The league's statement said Vilma, Hargrove, Smith and Fujita were suspended because of "conduct detrimental to the NFL as a result of their leadership roles" with the bounties.
Will Smith issued a statement Wednesday night saying he, too, will appeal and called the allegations against him "one-hundred percent false."
"I am disappointed the NFL has punished me with a four game suspension. I have never in my career, nor as a Captain asked others, to intentionally target and hurt specific opposing players. I was in no way involved in establishing or assisting Gregg Williams with implementing a bounty program. The accusations made against me are completely and one-hundred percent false, and I plan to appeal the decision along with the help of the NFL Players Association," he said via statement sent by his publicist.
"Through this entire process, the NFL never notified me of what I was being accused of, nor presented me with any evidence or reasoning for this decision," Smith's statement continued. "I am interested in discovering who is making these specific and false accusations, and as well as why a decision was made without speaking with me and giving me the opportunity to review the facts. I am going to work with my union to clear my name and returning to the game I love and respect. Thank you to our fans for the continued support."
Fujita did not immediately respond to an email or phone call from The Associated Press seeking comment. He is not taking part in the Browns' "voluntary" offseason conditioning program and remains in California with his family. His wife, Jaclyn, recently gave birth to the couple's third daughter.
An NFL investigation determined the Saints ran a bounty system from 2009 to '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 without pay, 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 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, Brett Favre and Kurt Warner. "Knockouts" were worth $1,500 and "cart-offs" $1,000, with payments doubled or tripled for the playoffs.
Warner was among several former and current NFL players to react on social media to the NFL's ruling.
"Just saw player suspensions from "bounty gate", WOW! #fb," Warner posted on Twitter.
Wednesday's penalties close the book on the league's discipline for bounties, leaving the Saints without their head coach and top defensive player (Vilma) for the full season -- and also affecting two other clubs.
"In assessing player discipline, 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," Goodell said in a statement.
While the league said that its investigation showed "a significant number of players participated" in the bounties -- by ponying up cash or collecting it -- "the players disciplined participated at a different and more significant level."
According to the league, Saints defensive captain Vilma offered $10,000 in cash to any player who knocked then-Cardinals QB Warner out of a playoff game at the end of the 2009 season, and the same amount for knocking then-Vikings QB Favre out of that season's NFC Championship Game. The Saints were flagged for roughing Favre twice in that game, and the league later said they should have received another penalty for a brutal high-low hit from Remi Ayodele and Bobby McCray that hurt Favre's ankle. He was able to finish the game, but the Saints won in overtime en route to the NFL title.
According to the NFL, Fujita "pledged a significant amount of money to the prohibited pay-for-performance/bounty pool during the 2009 NFL Playoffs when he played for the Saints."
The league said Hargrove "actively obstructed the league's 2010 investigation into the program by being untruthful to investigators." He also "actively participated in the program while a member of the Saints," the league said, adding that he eventually "submitted a signed declaration to the league that established not only the existence of the program at the Saints, but also that he knew about and participated in it."
The NFL said that "multiple independent sources" said Smith "pledged significant sums to the program pool."
The league said no player agreed to be interviewed in person, and the players also declined to send someone to argue on their behalf, league sources told Schefter. As one NFL source said, "They took the Fifth Amendment."
The NFLPA did not share information from its own investigation, and league sources told Schefter that the union never recommended any discipline in the case.
A Saints source who testified during the league's investigation told ESPN's Ed Werder on Wednesday that he believed the league's findings are exaggerated. The source said that while the report said the program existed for three seasons, it was limited to playoff games in the Superdome against Arizona and Minnesota in 2009.
The source told Werder that the program began when Williams was concerned about creating a higher level of motivation for his defensive players as they prepared for the postseason. Before a team meeting, Williams told Vilma that he had a plan, and that the coach provided Vilma with the 10,000 dollars he offered to any teammate who knocked out Warner. The source said Vilma returned the money to Williams following the meeting.
According to the source, Williams believed the financial reward created the proper defensive mindset. So Williams and Vilma repeated the scenario the next week before playing the Vikings and Favre, who was the victim of several illegal hits, had to be helped from the field, but finished the game.
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. Some of those contracts were restructured this offseason, perhaps in anticipation of the punishments.
Their teams -- the Saints, Browns and Packers -- already have made personnel moves that could help fill the gaps. The Saints signed three linebackers in free agency; the Packers, who also will be without defensive end Mike Neal for four games because he violated the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances, drafted two defensive linemen last week; and the Browns drafted two linebackers.
Browns coach Pat Shurmur said the team will abide by Goodell's ruling.
"We will respect the Commissioner's decision," Shurmur said in a statement. "Scott is a valued member of the Cleveland Browns, and we look forward to his participation in our offseason program and training camp."
A Packers spokesman said the team will not comment on Hargrove's suspension and the Saints did not immediately comment.
After the NFL announced the players' suspensions, DeMaurice Smith issued a statement saying the union "has still not received any detailed or specific evidence from the league of these specific players' involvement in an alleged pay-to-injure program. 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."
All payouts for specific performances in a game, including interceptions or causing fumbles, are against NFL rules. The NFL warns teams against such practices before each season, although in the aftermath of the revelations about the Saints, current and former players from various teams talked about that sort of thing happening frequently -- just not on the same scale as was found in New Orleans.
Goodell has made an effort to emphasize player safety in recent seasons. The NFL is facing dozens of lawsuits brought by more than 1,000 former players who say the league didn't do enough to warn them about -- or protect them from -- the dangers of concussions.
Player reaction was mixed around the league, with some supporting Goodell's decision, and others complaining about it.
"I think he's doing the right thing to make sure this doesn't happen ever again. There's no room for any kind of bounty system in the NFL. It's a physical sport and you've got to respect the game," New York Giants quarterback and Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning said. "He's been harsh to try to make a statement saying there is no place for this in the game of football."
But James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers, a linebacker who was suspended for a game last season after an illegal hit on Browns quarterback Colt McCoy, tweeted that the penalties were "ridiculous" and suggested Goodell's crackdown is motivated by the concussion lawsuits and a desire to increase the regular season to 18 games.
Saints tight end Jimmy Graham tweeted: "I want to see the evidence and hear an explanation."
Saints backup quarterback Chase Daniel tweeted that Vilma found out about his suspension by watching ESPN's "SportsCenter" and not from the league itself.
Daniel's tweet: "I was standing right next 2 @jonvilma51 when he found out abt his suspension ON @SportsCenter. Really? He has to find out about it that way?"
Meanwhile, Saints running back Mark Ingram tweeted the suspensions will prove only to motivate New Orleans.
"Don't worry they just makin us hungrier and puttin a bigger chip on or shoulder!! #WHODATNATION will rise above it!! #believedat," he wrote.
In a memo sent Wednesday to the NFL's 32 teams, Goodell reminded them that "any program of non-contract bonuses, however it is characterized, is a violation of league rules" and said that every head coach must review those rules with assistants and players during minicamp or preseason training camp.
Also, all players will be told how they can confidentially report rules violations.
In March, Goodell made Payton the first head coach suspended by the league for any reason, for 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.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.