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Saints players suspended; Vilma to miss entire 2012 season

Four players involved in the Saints’ illegal bounty program have been suspended by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, the league announced today.

Middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma was suspended the entire season, while defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, now with the Green Bay Packers, was suspended eight games. Saints defensive end Will Smith was suspended four games, and linebacker Scott Fujita, now with the Cleveland Browns, received a three-game suspension.

Goodell leveled the sanctions under Article 46 of the league’s collective bargaining agreement, which authorizes the commissioner to discipline players for conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the NFL.

According to the league, its investigation concluded that while he was captain of the Saints’ defense under defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, Vilma helped fund the program. The league said several independent sources indicated that Vilma offer a $10,000 bounty to any player who knocked Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner out of the 2009 divisional playoff game. He offered the same amount to anyone who knocked Vikings quarterback Brett Favre out of the 2009 NFC Championship Game the following week.

Fujita pledged money toward the bounty pool, which paid cash rewarded for “cart-offs” and “knockouts” that caused opposing players to leave games or be carted off the field.

Hargrove also participated in the program, according to league investigators. He submitted a signed declaration to the NFL that established the existence of the program, and that he participated in it. Hargrove told at least onen player on another team that Favre was a target of the Saints’ bounty program in the NFC title game, according to the league. Hargrove also obstructed the league’s 2010 investigation into the program by lying to investigators, the league said.

Smith assisted Williams in establishing and funding the program while he was captain of the defense.

Fujita, Hargrove, and Smith are permitted to participate in all off-season activity, including preseason games, before the suspensions take effect at the end of the preseason. If an appeal is filed by any players, Goodell would hear the appeal and decide the player’s fate.

“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,” Goodell said in a statement. “Respect for the men that play the game starts with the way players conduct themselves with each other on the field.”

According to the league’s report, up to 27 players participated in the bounty program. However, Goodell suspended only those players who were actively funding the program or taking a leadership role in it.

Williams has been suspended indefinitely, while Saints head coach Sean Payton has been suspended for the entire season. General manager Mickey Loomis was suspended eight games, and assistant head coach/linebackers coach Joe Vitt, now the interim head coach, was suspended six games.

The Saints were fined $500,000 and docked two second-round draft picks.

All suspensions were unsuccessfully appealed, although some financial penalties may be lessened by Goodell.

“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.

“No bounty program can exist without active player participation,” Goodell said. “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."

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