Hoping to close the book on bounties, the NFL suspended Saints defensive captain Jonathan Vilma without pay for all of next season Wednesday and gave shorter bans to three other players for their leading roles in the team’s cash-for-hits system that knocked key opponents out of games from 2009-11.
The league said 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.” Add the losses to the previously announced suspension of head coach Sean Payton for all of 2012, along with shorter penalties for general manager Mickey Loomis and assistant coach Joe Vitt, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell came down hard on the Saints ahead of a season that will end with New Orleans playing host to the Super Bowl.
If Goodell aims to move on, 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.
Through his agent, Vilma issued a statement saying he is “shocked and extremely disappointed” by the punishment and denying he was a bounty ringleader.
“I never set out to intentionally hurt any player and never enticed any teammate to intentionally hurt another player. 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,” Vilma said. He added: “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, to the detriment of me, my teammates, the New Orleans Saints and the game.”
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.