Vilma among four suspended for roles in pay-for-pain plan

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Vilma will miss out on $1.6 million in base salary in 2012, while Fujita stands lose more than $640,000, Hargrove more than $385,000, and Smith more than $190,000. Some of those contracts were restructured this offseason, perhaps in anticipation of the punishments.

Their teams — the Saints, Browns and Packers — already have made personnel moves that could help fill the gaps. The Saints signed three linebackers in free agency; the Packers, who also will be without defensive end Mike Neal for four games because he violated the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances, drafted two defensive linemen last week; and the Browns drafted two linebackers.

All three clubs either declined to comment or did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

After the NFL announced the players’ suspensions, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith issued a statement saying 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. 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.”

All payouts for specific performances in a game, including interceptions or causing fumbles, are against NFL rules. The NFL warns teams against such practices before each season, although in the aftermath of the revelations about the Saints, current and former players from various teams talked about that sort of thing happening frequently — just not on the same scale as was found in New Orleans.

Goodell has made an effort to emphasize player safety in recent seasons. The NFL is facing dozens of lawsuits brought by more than 1,000 former players who say the league didn’t do enough to warn them about — or protect them from — the dangers of concussions.

Player reaction was mixed around the league, with some supporting Goodell’s decision, and others complaining about it.

“I think he’s doing the right thing to make sure this doesn’t happen ever again. There’s no room for any kind of bounty system in the NFL. It’s a physical sport and you’ve got to respect the game,” New York Giants quarterback and Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning said. “He’s been harsh to try to make a statement saying there is no place for this in the game of football.”

But James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers, a linebacker who was suspended for a game last season after an illegal hit on Browns quarterback Colt McCoy, tweeted that the penalties were “ridiculous” and suggested that Goodell’s crackdown is motivated by the concussion lawsuits and a desire to increase the regular season to 18 games.

Saints tight end Jimmy Graham tweeted: “I want to see the evidence and hear an explanation.”

In a memo sent Wednesday to the NFL’s 32 teams, Goodell reminded them that “any program of non-contract bonuses, however it is characterized, is a violation of league rules” and said that every head coach must review those rules with assistants and players during mini-camp or preseason training camp.

Also, all players will be told how they can confidentially report rules violations.

In March, Goodell made Payton the first head coach suspended by the league for any reason, for trying to cover up the system of extra cash payouts. Goodell also indefinitely banned Williams, who was hired in January to run the St. Louis Rams’ defense.

In addition, Goodell suspended Saints general manager Mickey Loomis for the first eight regular-season games next season and assistant coach Joe Vitt for the first six games. The Saints were fined $500,000 and lost two second-round draft picks.

Fujita, Hargrove, and Smith are allowed to participate in offseason activity, including preseason games, before their suspensions take effect. Vilma, though, is suspended immediately and will be reinstated after the coming season’s Super Bowl — which, coincidentally, will be played in New Orleans.

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