New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma was suspended one year by the NFL… (Jamie Squire / Getty Images )
Another shoe drop, another shock wave.
The NFL dropped the hammer on the New Orleans Saints again Wednesday, punishing four players for their role in the bounty scandal, including a full-season suspension of linebacker and defensive captain Jonathan Vilma.
Defensive linemen Anthony Hargrove and Will Smith got eight- and four-game suspensions, respectively, and linebacker Scott Fujita was suspended for three games. Hargrove now plays for Green Bay and Fujita for Cleveland.
The howls of protest from the punished players and their union were immediate and strident.
Vilma, who had been largely silent to this point in the face of allegations that he plunked down $10,000 to entice teammates into knocking Kurt Warner and Brett Favre out of playoff games, vowed to "fight this injustice."
Through his lawyer, Vilma said he "never paid, or intended to pay" a bounty to knock a quarterback out of a game.
"I never set out to intentionally hurt any player and never enticed any teammate to intentionally hurt another player," he said in a written statement. "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."
Smith called the accusations against him "100% false."
In the cases of Vilma and Smith, the league cited "multiple independent sources" who say those players helped fund the bounty program.
Saints Coach Sean Payton, General Manager Mickey Loomis and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams have acknowledged their role in the improper bounty program, and the recently released audiotape of Williams imploring his players to injure San Francisco players is graphic and damning.
Payton has been suspended for a year, Loomis for eight games and Williams indefinitely.
The sanctions of players involved was the final puzzle piece.
"In assessing player discipline," NFL Commissioner Roger 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."
The league said that Hargrove submitted a signed declaration that established not only the existence of the program with the Saints, but also that he knew about it and participated. Further, the league said Hargrove "actively obstructed the league's 2010 investigation into the program by being untruthful to investigators."
The league said Smith and Fujita pledged significant sums to the program pool for "cart-offs" and "knockouts" of opposing players.
The players have a three-day window in which to appeal to Goodell.
Vilma sounds intent on doing so.
"I intend to fight this injustice," he said, "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."
In a memo to the league's 32 clubs, Goodell wrote that the league brought on Mary Jo White, former U.S. attorney for New York, at an early stage of the investigation to ensure the fairness of the process and the reliability of the information.
"After her review, she expressed a high degree of confidence in the fairness of the investigation, the reliability of the findings, and the quality of evidence that supported those findings," Goodell wrote in a document obtained by the NFL Network.
The NFL Players Assn., meanwhile, is in a tricky position. It immediately responded to the sanctions, saying it has not received any detailed or specific information on the involvement of the four players punished.
"We have made it clear that punishment without evidence is not fair," said DeMaurice Smith, the union's executive director. "We have spoken with our players and their representatives and we will vigorously protect and pursue all options on their behalf."
The union, of course, doesn't just represent the suspended players but all NFL players, including those targeted. That includes those 49ers who — as Williams pointed out in his pregame speech — had particularly vulnerable heads and knees.
If the NFLPA goes out of its way to protect Saints who were targeting other players, the union will look less like an advocate for all players and more like a group that blindly opposes anything that has to do with management.