NEW YORK - NFL commissioner Roger Goodell finally announced player suspensions Wednesday in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal.
And they are harsh.
Four players -- fewer than expected -- are suspended without pay as follows:
* Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma is out for the entire 2012 season, effective immediately, for helping to "establish and fund" the pay-for-injury program. The NFL says "multiple independent sources" confirmed that Vilma offered $10,000 in cash to any New Orleans defender who could knock Cardinals QB Kurt Warner out of the 2009 divisional playoff game, and Vilma pledged the same amount to do likewise to Vikings QB Brett Favre the next week in the NFC championship game. Vilma can apply for reinstatement after the Super Bowl next February.
* Defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, now with the Green Bay Packers, is out for the first eight games of the 2012 regular season. Hargrove "actively participated" in the program while with the Saints, according to the NFL. He admitted as much to the league in writing, confirming that there was a large bounty to injure Favre.
* Will Smith of the Saints, a defensive end, is out for the first four games. Multiple sources told the league that he pledged "significant sums" to the program for "cart-offs" and "knockouts" of opposing players.
* Scott Fujita, a linebacker now with the Cleveland Browns, is out for the first three games for pledging "a significant amount of money" to the illegal bounty pool the Saints defence employed in the 2009-11 seasons.
According to the NFL's news release, "The evidence conclusively demonstrated that from 2009-2011 Saints players of their own accord pledged significant amounts of their own money toward bounties, that players accepted payments for 'cart-offs' and 'knockouts' of injured opposing players, and that the payout amounts doubled and tripled for playoff games."
Almost immediately following the NFL's midday announcement, multiple reports said all four players will appeal.
"Get ready for a massive legal battle on many fronts," ESPN's Adam Schefter quoted a source as saying.
The executive director of the NFL players union, DeMaurice Smith, then issued this terse statement:
"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. 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."
The union wants to see the league's entire 50,000-page report. The league won't do so, and contends it shared with the union the same two confidential summary reports in March that it distributed to NFL clubs.
Appeals must be filed to the league within three days. Goodell would hear them.
That Vilma was suspended for the entire season is surprising. Speculation was he would be gone for several games, tops.
Despite a sub-standard 2011 season, Vilma is the "quarterback -- the Drew Brees -- of the Saints defence," said Steve Wyche of NFL Network.
No less surprising was that only three other players were suspended. The NFL said 22 to 27 allegedly took part in the program and were under investigation.
Not one player agreed to be interviewed in person by league investigators, the NFL said. Hargrove was the only one to help with the investigation, providing a written statement in which he "did not dispute the existence of the program," the league said.
The suspensions come more than a month after Goodell announced punishments for the Saints team, its GM and three coaches over "Bounty-gate."
On March 21 Goodell fined the team $500,000, stripped it of its second-round draft pick this year and next, and suspended four prominent team reps -- head coach Sean Payton for the entire season without pay, then-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (now with the Rams) indefinitely, GM Mickey Loomis for the first eight games of the season, and assistant head coach Joe Vitt for the first six games.
Vitt was named the interim head coach for 2012, and the Saints have yet to announce his temporary replacement.
Williams, as defensive coordinator, eventually admitted to the league that the bounty program existed, and that he ran it. He apologized publicly last month.
Goodell in March said the fact the team and those principals ignored the league's call to end the bounty program, then lied about it "repeatedly" during the league's investigation, impacted his decision to punish them so harshly.
The commish on Wednesday explained his rationale behind his player punishments in a statement.
"No bounty program can exist without active player participation," Goodell said. "The evidence clearly showed that the players being held accountable today willingly and enthusiastically embraced the bounty program. 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 league said its investigative arm, NFL Security, worked with independent forensic analysts to arrive at its findings.
"In assessing player discipline," Goodell said, "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."
Warner, the Cards QB who is now an NFL Network commentator, was asked on air Wednesday if he could tell the Saints were out to injure him in that 2009 playoff game. No, he said, even though he got pulverized after throwing an interception.
"Was it a cheap shot? Was it a hit that went beyond the realm of what's normal in the game? Was somebody trying to take out my knee? Was somebody trying to take out my head? When I look back at that game, I don't see players trying to do that ... I see them hitting hard, and I think that's a part of our game."
But Warner admitted that a week later, when the Saints were clobbering Favre relentlessly in the NFC title game, he thought, "Man, these guys are pushing the envelope a little too much."
Warner said he has long believed that some NFL defenders try to injure rival players, especially quarterbacks.
"I think that's a part of the game. Do I agree with that? Of course not. There's no place in the integrity of our games for things like that."
Darren Sharper, a safety on the Saints in 2009 and '10, told NFL Network Wednesday that the NFL's finding of $10,000 bounties on Warner and Favre in the '09 playoffs "did not happen." Although he seemed to be disputing only the cash amount.
"The numbers, as far as the $10,000? I did not hear that, and I was in the room," Sharper said.
Sharper still is friends with many of the Saints defenders, and said the many "unfair" suspensions "will be a rallying cry" for the club this year.