NFL announced Wednesday the player penalties for involvement in the bounty system with the New Orleans Saints.
Jonathan Vilma has been suspended for the 2012 season. Fellow Saints defensive captain Will Smith received a four-game ban.
The suspension for Vilma is effective immediately per league policy for season-long suspensions. Vilma is eligible to be reinstated after the Super Bowl in 2013.
Two former Saints, Anthony Hargrove and Scott Fujita, were given eight and three game suspensions, respectively. All suspensions are without pay.
"No bounty program can exist without active player participation," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell stated in a release by the league. "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."
Smith, Hargrove (now with the Green Bay Packers) and Fujita (now with the Cleveland Browns) can participate in all normal league team activities until the end of the preseason when the suspensions begin.
The players' union will appeal the penalities.
"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. 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," DeMaurice Smith, NFL Players Association Executive Director, said in a released statement.
Vilma vehemently denied the league's claims against him in a statement released later Wednesday:
"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."
Smith followed suit with his own statement released later in the evening:
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 100 percent false, and I plan to appeal the decision along with the help of the NFL Players Association. 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. 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.
The NFL release says the players have three days to appeal.
The NFL's investigation concluded that Vilma assisted former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams in establishing and funding the pay-for-performance and bounty (intent to injure) program. Vilma reportedly offered $10,000 in cash to any teammate who knocked Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner out of the 2009 Divisional Playoff Game and later pledged the same amount to anyone who knocked Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre out of the 2009 NFC Championship Game the following week.
Hargrove is suspended without pay for the first eight games of the 2012 regular season. Hargrove submitted a signed declaration to the league admitted his active participation in the bounty program. the investigation found that Hargrove, who intially denied the program's existence, told at least one player on another team that Vikings quarterback Brett Favre was a target of a large bounty during the NFC Championship Game in January of 2010.
Smith also assisted Williams in establishing and funding the program during a period in which he was a captain and leader of the defensive unit. Multiple independent sources also confirmed that Smith pledged significant sums to the program pool for "cart-offs" and "knockouts" of opposing players.
The league also states that Fujita pledged significant money to the 'bounty pool' for injuring opposing players (via "cart-offs" and "knockouts") during the 2009 playoffs.Perhaps in anticipation of suspensions, both Vilma and Smith restructured their contracts with the Saints in recent weeks, turning parts of their salary into signing bonuses. The moves also help the Saints free up salary cap space for 2012.
Vilma was originally due to make $2.6 million this season, but reworked his deal to include a $1 million signing bonus and a $1.6 million salary. Smith's redone contract is much more favorable, with a $6.1 million signing bonus and an $825,000 salary.
As a result, Vilma will lose only the $1.6 million, while Smith will lose a little more than $200,000.
The Saints were fined $500,000 and forfeited two second-round draft choices (one in 2012 and one in 2013) in March for its responsibility in the program. Suspensions were handed down for Williams (indefinitely), head coach Sean Payton (2012 NFL season), general manager Mickey Loomis (first eight regular-season games of 2012) and assistant head coach Joe Vitt (first six regular-season games of 2012). All but Williams submitted appeals, but the league upheld the penalties.
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