New Orleans Saints get off relatively light with player bounty suspensions

All things considered – such as the NFL investigating a reported 22 to 27 players in the bounty scandal – the New Orleans Saints made out OK on Wednesday.

That was it for the current Saints roster, which was bracing for the worst.

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The league announced the suspensions of just four players, only two still currently with the team. New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma was suspended, without pay, for the entire 2012 season. Defensive end Will Smith will sit the first four games.

Former Saints defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, now with the Green Bay Packers, will miss the first half of season. Linebacker Scott Fujita, currently with the Cleveland Browns, is out three.

All but Vilma can participate in offseason programs and even play in preseason games.

Fears are over in the Big Easy of a big smoldering fire where the team photo used to be.

The organization has paid dearly, of course, no penalty bigger than losing head coach Sean Payton for the entire year. There was also a $500,000 fine, lost draft picks and general manager Mickey Loomis getting sat for half a season.

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While today's suspensions make even bleaker the Saints' hopes of being the first "home team" Super Bowl participant – the city's Superdome hosts the game next February – this could've been worse.

Instead the NFL acted appropriately. It put a premium on the people who set up the bounty system, promoted it and funded it – not the ones who merely participated. Also, trying to cover your tracks in the face of a league inquiry remains a serious problem.

"In assessing player discipline," commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement, "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."

So why did Vilma get drilled? He was one of the "bosses", if you will.

According to an NFL statement, "The investigation concluded that while a captain of the defensive unit Vilma assisted Coach [Gregg] Williams in establishing and funding the program." Williams, the former defensive coordinator who has since moved onto the St. Louis Rams, has been banned indefinitely from the league.

"Multiple independent sources also confirmed that Vilma offered a specific bounty – $10,000 in cash – to any player who knocked Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner out of the 2009 Divisional Playoff Game," the NFL's statement continued, "and later pledged the same amount to anyone who knocked Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre out of the 2009 NFC Championship Game the following week."

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And so that was that for Vilma, and there's no legitimate argument against the suspension – although players have three days to appeal and you can expect a serious counter attack coming from the players.

The NFL is a violent place and bounties, helmet stickers or simple pats on the back for taking out opposing players have long been part of football down to the youth level.

That said, you can't have organized pay-for-pain systems. You just can't. Whether it's widespread or not doesn't matter. The Saints got caught. Vilma was a leader. The NFL had to do what it had to do.

"It is the obligation of everyone, including the players on the field, to ensure that rules designed to promote player safety, fair play, and the integrity of the game are adhered to and effectively and consistently enforced," Goodell said. "Respect for the men that play the game starts with the way players conduct themselves with each other on the field."

Fujita was cited for pledging "a significant amount of money to the prohibited pay-for-performance/bounty pool during the 2009 NFL Playoffs." Smith worked on the bounty system with Williams and "multiple independent sources also confirmed that Smith pledged significant sums to the program."

Meanwhile, Hargrove "actively obstructed the league's 2010 investigation into the program by being untruthful to investigators."

The league also cited further proof that the system existed, including Hargrove providing "a signed declaration to the league that established not only the existence of the program at the Saints, but also that he knew about and participated in it."

The league rightly went after the people pushing the program, not the guy who got caught up in it in a locker-room culture where trying to resist would require substantial professional and personal courage.

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There's no place for a bounty program in the NFL. Wednesday the league tried to close the book by sanctioning the last of the offenders.

There shouldn't be much to argue with in this announcement, even in New Orleans.

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