Hoping to close the book on bounties, the NFL suspended New Orleans 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.
Defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, now with the Green Bay Packers, was suspended for the first half of the 16-game season; Saints defensive end Will Smith was barred for the opening four games; and linebacker Scott Fujita, now with the Cleveland Browns, will miss the first three games of 2012.
Like Vilma, they were suspended without pay, costing each hundreds of thousands of dollars. Vilma and Smith denied any wrongdoing.
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 of Vilma and Smith 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 hosting the Super Bowl.
As attention to concussions has increased in recent seasons, Goodell has emphasized the importance of player safety via rules enforcement and threats of fines or suspensions. The NFL is facing dozens of lawsuits brought by more than 1,000 former players who say the league didn't warn them about - or shield them from - the dangers of head injuries.
If Goodell aims to move on from the bounty case, 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.