NEW ORLEANS (AP) — All but four of the 27 current or former Saints that the NFL linked to New Orleans' cash-for-hits bounty system can now look forward to next season free of worry that they'll be forced to miss games, or game checks.
As for those who've been suspended, they were sanctioned as severely as the coaches and general manager punished before them, and now must determine what measures they're willing to take to show NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell that he got it wrong.
"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 Saints linebacker and defensive captain Jonathan Vilma, who received the harshest punishment of any player.
Like Saints head coach Sean Payton, Vilma has been suspended for the entire 2012 season. 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 of 2012.
They were all suspended without pay, costing each hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"The accusations made against me are completely and 100 percent false, and I plan to appeal," Smith said in a statement issued by his publicist.
The league said its investigation showed "a significant number of players participated" in a bounty program — either by paying into a pool or collecting from it — that ran from 2009-11 under former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who has been suspended indefinitely.
Goodell stressed, however, that "the players disciplined participated at a different and more significant level."
The losses of Vilma and Smith, combined with the previously announced suspension Payton and suspensions of eight games for general manager Mickey Loomis and six games for assistant head coach Joe Vitt, amount to a significant punishment for the Saints ahead of a season that will end with New Orleans hosting the Super Bowl.
Yet, if Goodell is hoping to move on from the bounty case, the NFL Players Association might not let him. The suspended players have three days to appeal, and NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith said the union would fight the ruling. Fujita, a member of the NFLPA's executive committee, has spoken out in the past about the need for the league to do a better job of protecting players.
Through his agent, Vilma issued a statement saying he is "shocked and extremely disappointed" by the punishment and denied he was a bounty ringleader.
"I never set out to intentionally hurt any player and never enticed any teammate to intentionally hurt another player," Vilma said. "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."
Will Smith stated that he has "never in my career, nor as a captain, asked others to intentionally target and hurt specific opposing players."
"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 said. "I am interested in discovering who is making these specific and false accusations ... as well as why a decision was made without speaking with me and giving me the opportunity to review the facts."
DeMaurice Smith said 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."
The league said no player agreed to be interviewed in person and the NFLPA did not share information from its own investigation.
As attention to concussions has increased in recent seasons, Goodell has emphasized player safety through rules enforcement and the threat of fines and suspensions. 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 shield them from — the dangers of head injuries.
According to the NFL, its investigation determined the Saints ran a bounty system with thousands of dollars offered for big hits that sidelined opponents. The NFL said targeted players 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.
"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.
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