The NFL doled out more punishment over the New Orleans Saints' bounty scandal on Wednesday, suspending four players for their roles in the pay-for-pain scheme, including a season-long ban for current Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma.
According to the National Football League (NFL), the players were banned for taking leadership roles in a program that gave cash rewards for knocking opponents out of games from 2009-2011 and is believed to have included between 22 and 27 players.
"The evidence clearly showed that the players being held accountable today willingly and enthusiastically embraced the bounty program," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement.
"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."
The bounty scandal has been a black eye for a league that has been focusing on player safety as they face lawsuits from hundreds of former players who suffered concussions.
In addition to Vilma, defensive lineman Anthony Hargove (now with the Green Bay Packers) was suspended eight games, Saints' defensive end Will Smith will miss four games and linebacker Scott Fujita (now with the Cleveland Browns) will miss three games to start the 2012 NFL season.
Each player may appeal the decision within three days and would appear at a hearing presided over by Goodell at which the player may speak on his behalf and be represented by counsel.
The NFL Players Association (NFLPA) questioned the fairness of the punishments and said it has not received any detailed or specific evidence from the league of these specific players' involvement in the pay-to-injure program.
"We have made it clear that punishment without evidence is not fair," DeMaurice Smith, the NFLPA's executive director, said in a statement. "We have spoken with our players and their representatives and we will vigorously protect and pursue all options on their behalf."
The scandal has already led to heavy punishment for the Saints franchise, including a season-long suspension for head coach Sean Payton, eight games for general manger Mickey Loomis and six games for assistant Joey Vitt. Former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was also suspended indefinitely.
The Saints were also fined $500,000 and forfeited a second-round draft pick in 2012 and 2013.
Goodell said that while a "significant" number of players were involved in the program, he singled out the ones who had a higher degree of responsibility and whose conduct warranted special attention.
"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," he said.
Vilma, who was captain of the Saints defense and hardest hit for his involvement, assisted Williams in establishing and funding the program, according to the NFL.
The NFL said many sources confirmed Vilma offered $10,000 to any Saints player who knocked former Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner out of a playoff game in the 2009 season and pledged the same amount for Brett Favre in the conference title game against Minnesota a week later.
New Orleans went on to win the franchise's first Super Bowl that season with a 31-17 victory over the Indianapolis Colts in the NFL's championship game.
(Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue)