The NFL suspended Saints defensive captain Jonathan Vilma without pay for all of next season and gave shorter bans to three other players for their leading roles in the team's cash-for-hits bounty system.
Defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, now with the Packers, was suspended for the first half of the 16-game season; Saints defensive end Will Smith was barred for the first four games; and linebacker Scott Fujita, now with the Browns, will miss the first three. They also were suspended without pay.
The league said Wednesday that its investigation showed "a significant number of players participated" in the bounties — by ponying up cash or collecting it — but noted that "the players disciplined participated at a different and more significant level." Commissioner Roger Goodell has come down hard on the Saints in this case amid rising concerns about concussions and player safety. He previously suspended coach Sean Payton (all of 2012), general manager Mickey Loomis (eight games) and assistant coach Joe Vitt (six).
The players have three days to appeal, and NFL Players Association head DeMaurice Smith said the union has "made it clear that punishment without evidence is not fair."
Vilma, a former University of Miami standout, said he was "shocked and extremely disappointed" by the penalty, denying he was a ringleader and saying he would appeal.
"I never set out to intentionally hurt any player and never enticed any teammate to intentionally hurt another player," said Vilma, whose ban, which will cost him $1.6 million in base salary, starts immediately. "I intend to fight this injustice."
Fujita could lose more than $640,000, Hargrove more than $385,000, and Smith more than $190,000. All three can participate in offseason activities.
Smith also denied a role, saying, "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."
The league said no player agreed to be interviewed in person and the NFLPA did not share information from its own investigation. According to the NFL, its investigation determined the Saints ran a bounty system orchestrated by then-Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams for three years..
According to the NFL, Vilma, a linebacker, offered $10,000 in cash to any player who knocked then-Cardinals QB Kurt Warner out of a playoff game at the end of the 2009 season, and the same amount for knocking then-Vikings QB Brett Favre out of that season's NFC title game.
Fujita and Smith, the NFL said, pledged significant sums of money to the pools, and Hargrove "actively obstructed the league's 2010 investigation."
While many players criticized Goodell's decision — former Saints running back Reggie Bush called it "outrageous" on Twitter — Giants quarterback Eli Manning said, "He's been harsh, to try to make a statement saying there is no place for this in the game of football."