New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma was suspended for the 2012 season for his role in the team's bounty scandal, the most severe of the punishments handed out Wednesday by commissioner Roger Goodell.
Three other players received suspension for their parts: defensive tackle Anthony Hargrove (now with the Green Bay Packers) will miss eight games, defensive Will Smith four games and linebacker Scott Fujita (now with the Cleveland Browns) received three games apiece.
None of the players will be paid during their respective suspensions. The players can appeal the decision within three days, and be heard by Goodell.
An extensive investigation discovered that Saints coaches and players contributed to an elaborate system that paid cash bonuses for hits that injured opposing players, finding as many as 27 participants.
"The evidence conclusively demonstrated that from 2009-11, 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," Goodell said in a statement.
The NFL Players Association released a statement on the suspensions that asks for the evidence used to determine the punishments.
"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," NFL Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith said. "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."
For their roles, Saints head coach Sean Payton has been suspended for the 2012 season. General manager Mickey Loomis will miss eight games after the preseason, while interim coach Joe Vitt will begin a six-game ban at the same time.
Former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is suspended indefinitely.
---Former NFL linebacker Junior Seau, an icon during a 20-year playing career, was found dead in his Oceanside, Calif., home Wednesday, of an apparent suicide.
A 911 call reporting a possible suicide was made to police at 10 a.m. PT, a dispatcher told the San Diego Union-Tribune.
"Everyone at the Chargers is in complete shock and disbelief right now," the team said in a statement. "We ask everyone to stop what they're doing and send their prayers to Junior and his family."
Seau was 43, and leaves behind an ex-wife and three children.
He spent 13 of his 20 seasons with the Chargers, and was a defensive force on the 1994 team that lost to the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIX. A standout at USC, he was the fifth overall pick of the 1990 draft, and carried with pride the long legacy that wearing the No. 55 jersey and playing linebacker means to the team.
"Junior was an icon not only in San Diego but throughout the nation," Chargers chaplain Shawn Mitchell told the Union-Tribune. "Of course this will affect a lot of people, not in the least the children and kids who look up to him. He had a great impact on many lives. He's changed my life in many ways, I'm sure."
In 2010, Seau was hospitalized after he drove his SUV off a cliff in Carlsbad, Calif., and plunged 30 feet to a coastal bluff. Hours earlier, police arrested him on suspicions of domestic abuse of his 25-year-old girlfriend.
Of the auto accident, Seau said he had fallen asleep at the wheel, and wasn't trying to commit suicide.
A 12-time Pro Bowl linebacker and six-time All-Pro, Seau also played with the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots. He was inducted into the Chargers Ring of Honor in 2011.
He is the eighth member of the '94 Chargers team to die. The others: Lew Bush (heart attack), Rodney Culver (plane crash), David Griggs (car accident), Shawn Lee (cardiac arrest), Doug Miller (lightning strike), Chris Mims (enlarged heart) and Curtis Whitley (unknown).
The Patriots, the team where Seau spent his final four seasons, also issued a statement:
"We are deeply saddened by the news of his death. We were fortunate to have had Junior join the Patriots in 2006 and are thankful for his many contributions to the team over the next four years. He had a legendary NFL career and his unrivaled passion for the game quickly made him a fan favorite here in New England. This is a sad day for the entire Patriots organization, our coaches and his many Patriots teammates. Our heartfelt thoughts and prayers go out to his family and his many friends who will mourn this loss."
Other team also expressed their condolences:
"We are deeply saddened by the news of the passing of Junior Seau. Junior's great passion, intensity and love for the game were evident every time he stepped on the football field. He was a formidable competitor who left an indelible mark on the game of football. We extend our most sincere condolences to his family and the Charger organization."
Texans linebacker Brian Cushing, who also went to USC, was one of many current and former NFL players saddened by the news.
"Wow shocked right now, I tapped Juniors picture every single day before heading out to practice at USC," Cushing wrote on his Facebook page. "R.I.P. to a legend n awesome person."
---New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who was suspended Wednesday for the 2012 season by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for Vilma's reported involvement in the Saints' bounty scandal, vows to clear his name.
In a statement released late Wednesday afternoon through the offices of his attorney, Mitch Frankel, and agent Tony Fleming, Vilma intends on clearing his name and will seek reinstatement.
"I am shocked and extremely disappointed by the NFL's decision to suspend me for the 2012 season," Vilma's statement began. "Commissioner Roger Goodell has refused to share any of the supposed evidence he claims supports this unprecedented punishment. The reason is clear: I never paid, or intended to pay, $10,000, or any amount of money, to any player for knocking Kurt Warner, Brett Favre or any other player out of the 2009 Divisional playoff game, 2010 NFC Championship Game or any other game.
"I never set out to intentionally hurt any player and never enticed any teammate to intentionally hurt another player. I also never put any money into a bounty pool or helped to create a bounty pool intended to pay out money for injuring other players. I have always conducted myself in a professional and proud manner.
"I intend to fight this injustice, to defend my reputation, to stand up for my team and my profession, and to send a clear signal to the commissioner that the process has failed, to the detriment of me, my teammates, the New Orleans Saints and the game."
---The New Orleans Saints and quarterback Drew Brees have made no progress on a long-term deal, according to an ESPN.com report.
Brees, who was tagged by the Saints as their franchise player, hasn't signed his one-year tender and has thus far skipped the team's voluntary workouts.
Brees led the Saints to the franchise's first Super Bowl championship after in 2009. He broke Dan Marino's single-season passing yards record last season, throwing for 5,476 yards and 46 touchdowns.
---Wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, the 45th overall pick in the 2012 draft, signed a four-year deal with the Bears. He's expected to compete to be the No. 2 or No. 3 receiver behind Brandon Marshall as a rookie.
Jeffery started 33 of 40 games in three seasons (2009-11) and established school records with 3,042 receiving yards on 183 receptions (16.6-yard average) with 23 touchdowns. The 6-3, 216-pound receiver tied Sidney Rice for South Carolina's career touchdown reception record and his 183 catches are topped only by Kenny McKinley's 207.
---The Ravens and nose tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu agreed to a one-year deal.
Kemoeatu, 33, began his career with the Ravens but did not play in the NFL last season. He first signed as rookie free agent in 2002 and played in 61 games over four seasons in Baltimore.
He played with Carolina (2006-09) and Washington (2010-11) but has been slowed by Achilles and knee injuries.
"Maake will be given an opportunity to make our 53-man roster, and if he does, he will provide added depth on our D-line and help our ability to stop the run," general manager Ozzie Newsome said in a release Wednesday.
Kemoeatu started 40 games for the Panthers. He missed the 2009 season because of a ruptured Achilles sustained during training camp. Kemoeatu then signed with the Washington Redskins in 2010 and played in 14 games (12 starts).
"When we signed Maake as a rookie free agent in 2002, he really rose to the occasion and worked his way into becoming a highly-regarded player in Baltimore and throughout the league," director of pro personnel Vincent Newsome stated. "He is incredibly strong -- someone who has heavy hands and great punch. For a guy his size, he also moves really well and creates separation."
---The Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted and signed Rutgers defensive tackle Eric LeGrand Wednesday, a symbolic gesture for a player whose career was ended by a spinal cord injury.
New Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano was the Scarlet Knights' coach on Oct. 16, 2010, when LeGrand suffered fractures of two vertebrae and a spinal cord injury in a game against Army.
Initially told he would be a quadriplegic and have to remain on a ventilator, LeGrand began breathing on his own five weeks later. Later, he was able to stand upright with the help of a metal support frame.
LeGrand plans to graduate this fall with a degree in labor studies. He led the Scarlet Knights onto the field for an Oct. 29, 2011, game and has remained close with Schiano.
"Leading up to the draft, I couldn't help but think that this should've been Eric's draft class," Schiano said. "This small gesture is the least we could do to recognize his character, spirit and perseverance. The way Eric lives his life epitomizes what we are looking for in Buccaneer Men."
The Buccaneers chose May 2 as the signing day to represent LeGrand's college number, 52.
LeGrand posted a photo of a Tampa Bay helmet on his Twitter page, tweeting, "We ready!!!"