When the NFL initially announced its findings on what has become known as Bountygate, the league intimated that up to "27 defensive players contributed funds" over the bounty pool over a three-year span.
Earlier today, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodelll punished just four of those 27. As part of his statement (via NFL.com), he said:
In assessing player discipline, 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.
It would seem that linebacker Jonathan Vilma (suspended a full season), defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove (eight games), linebacker Scott Fujita (three games) and defensive lineman Will Smith (four games) fit the description above.
Are the suspensions handed down by the Commissioner today fair?
While it shouldn't come as any surprise that the four players in question are being punished, and punished quite severely, it is a bit surprising that in a program the NFL says encompassed nearly 30 players, only four will have to feel any disciplinary repercussions.
Obviously, the NFL not only expects the players in question to appeal (they have three days in which to do so), but there will reportedly be an extremely robust legal challenge, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.
Much like he did with the suspensions of Saints general manager Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton, Goodell is sending an extremely strong message by targeting the leaders of the bounty activities. The punishment is not only for their actions in regards to the program itself, but in some cases also for their less-than-forthcoming responses when the NFL initially spoke to them about it.
In Hargrove's case, the league says the veteran defensive end "actively obstructed the league’s 2010 investigation into the program by being untruthful to investigators" (via The Times-Picayune). This is the same type of thing that led to such harsh punishments for Loomis and Payton.
It seems pretty clear the only thing that saved Hargrove from a full season's suspension is his agreeing to sign a "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."
Now the debate will begin about whether the suspensions are "fair"—which I believe they are—and the complaints will roll in about the fact that the players' only recourse on appeal is to appeal back to Commissioner Goodell. Those complaints should be directed to the NFLPA's leadership, who signed off on Goodell having final say over all disciplinary matters as part of the new 10-year collective bargaining agreement.
What I find infuriating is those who say the punishments are "too harsh. There is a way the game of football is supposed to be played. Tough, hard-hitting defense is great. Creating incentives for injuries is deplorable on any level, but especially in a pro game where careers can be cut short and livelihoods and families can be affected, if not ruined.
Here's hoping that the Commissioner's discipline of both the Saints' front office and players sends a strong enough message that we never have to deal with another "Bountygate" ever again.