Jonathan Vilma was banned for the 2012 National Football League season without pay for his role in the New Orleans Saints’ bounty program.
The league also suspended defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, now with the Green Bay Packers, for the first eight games of next season; Will Smith, the Saints’ defensive end, for four games; and Scott Fujita, a linebacker now with the Cleveland Browns, for three games.
“The specific discipline was determined by Commissioner Roger Goodell after a thorough review of extensive evidence corroborated by multiple independent sources,” the NFL said in a statement.
Linebacker Vilma was scheduled to earn $1.6 million in salary from the Saints in 2012, while Smith and Hargrove were due to receive $825,000 each. Fujita was scheduled for $3.65 million in salary this season, according to the NFL Players Association.
The players have three days to appeal.
“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,” DeMaurice Smith, the union’s executive director, said in a separate statement. “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.”
Unlike some other major U.S. professional sports unions, the NFL players didn’t negotiate a right to seek independent arbitration for punishments into the collective bargaining agreement they signed in July.
Because the NFL chose to consider the player infractions as an off-the-field issue, they can only appeal Goodell’s ruling back to him, according to Gabe Feldman, director of the Sports Law Program at Tulane University in New Orleans.
“They have a limited right to challenge,” Feldman said in a telephone interview. “They certainly can go to court but courts will give great deference to the commissioner’s decision.”
The probable legal argument for the players would be that Goodell exceeded the scope of his authority under the labor deal, according to Feldman.
“The players have already threatened to bring legal action and it wouldn’t surprise me if they do, but it’s going to be a difficult argument to make,” Feldman said.
The NFL on March 21 handed down the stiffest punishment ever imposed on a team and its leadership for the 2009-11 bounty program. Saints coach Sean Payton was suspended for an entire season, General Manager Mickey Loomis was given a half-season suspension, assistant coach Joe Vitt received a six-game ban and the franchise was stripped of two draft picks and fined $500,000.
Former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who now holds that position for the St. Louis Rams, was suspended indefinitely for administering the program.
“The investigation concluded that, while a captain of the defensive unit, Vilma assisted coach Williams in establishing and funding the program,” the NFL said. “Multiple independent sources also confirmed that Vilma offered a specific bounty -- $10,000 in cash -- to any player 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.”
Vilma, 30, is an eight-year NFL veteran who’s played the past four seasons for the Saints after beginning his career with the New York Jets. A defensive team captain in New Orleans, he was named to the Pro Bowl for the 2005, 2009 and 2010 campaigns.
The league said Saints players were paid bonuses for on- field accomplishments, including forcing turnovers and injuring opponents. All such payments violate NFL rules on non-contract bonuses.
Players funded a bounty pool that paid $1,500 for a “knockout” in which an opposing player was unable to return to the game and $1,000 for a “cart-off” in which opponents were carried off the field, according to the NFL. Payments doubled or tripled during the playoffs. The Saints won the Super Bowl after the 2009 season.
Favre Was Targeted
Vilma was the only player initially named by the NFL, which said it wanted to consult with the NFL Players Association before handing down player punishments.
“Multiple sources have confirmed that several players pledged funds toward bounties on specific opposing players, with defensive captain Jonathan Vilma offering $10,000 to any player who knocked Brett Favre out of the NFL Championship Game in 2010,” the league said in March.
Williams repeatedly encouraged his players to injure members of the San Francisco 49ers in a speech on the eve of their playoff game last season that was recorded by filmmaker Sean Pamphilon.
Pamphilon, who had been given access to various team functions for much of the 2011 season, released the obscenity- laced audio on the same day Payton, Loomis and Vitt unsuccessfully appealed their penalties before NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in New York.
Williams took full responsibility for his role in the bounty program, saying in a statement on March 21 that “it was a terrible mistake, and we knew it was wrong when we were doing it.”
Fujita, 33, is a 10-year NFL linebacker who played for the Saints from 2006-2009. He joined the Browns in 2010 and is a member of the NFLPA’s executive committee.
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 NFL said.
Hargrove, 28, was given half-season ban after he obstructed the NFL’s initial investigation in 2010 by lying to investigators, the league said.
Smith helped Williams establish and fund the bounty program while he was a captain of the Saints’ defensive unit, the NFL said.
“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.
Running back Paul Hornung and defensive lineman Alex Karras in 1963 received the then-longest player suspensions in NFL history, full-season bans for betting on NFL games and associating with undesirable people. They were reinstated the following year.
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