NEW YORK (CBSMiami) – The National Football League has dropped the hammer on four players for the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal that rewarded players for intentionally trying to injure other players. The longest punishment came to a former University of Miami linebacker.

According to the NFL, New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who starred at UM, will be suspended for the entire 2012 season. The NFL said Vilma “while a captain of the defensive unit assisted Coach Williams in establishing and funding the program.”

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“Multiple independent sources also confirmed that Vilma offered a specific bounty –$10,000—to any player who knocked Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner out of the 2009 Divisional Playoff Game and later pledged the same amount to anyone who knocked Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre out of the 2009 NF Championship game the following week,” the NFL said.

“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,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said. “Respect for the men that play the game starts with the way players conduct themselves with each other on the field.”

Given Vilma’s age and injury history, the year-long suspension could be the beginning of the end of his career as a starting linebacker in the NFL.

Vilma issued a statement just after 4:30 p.m. that was written in all capital letters:

“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.”

In addition to Vilma’s suspension, Saints defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, who is now playing with the Green Bay Packers, was suspended for the first eight games of the 2012 season. The NFL said Hargrove admitted to the league the existence of the program and that he participated in it.

The league said Hargrove told at least one player on another team that Vikings quarterback Brett Favre was a target of a large bounty during the NFC Championship Game in January 2010. The NFL said Hargrove obstructed the league’s 2010 investigation by lying to investigators.

New Orleans defensive end Will Smith was suspended by the NFL for the first four games of the 2012 regular season. The NFL said Smith assisted suspended coach Gregg Williams in establishing and funding the program while he was a captain of the defense.

“Multiple independent sources also confirmed that Smith pledged significant sums to the program pool for ‘cart-offs’ and ‘knockouts’ of opposing players,” the league said.

Finally, Scott Fujita was suspended for the first three games of the 2012 regular season. The league said Fujita pledged significant money to the prohibited bounty pool during the 2009 NFL playoffs.

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Fujita, Hargrove, and Smith can participate in all off-season activity including preseason games prior to the suspensions taking effect. Players can appeal, but the appeal will be heard by Commissioner Roger Goodell, who just handed down the penalties.

Players across the league have expressed outrage and said that if a coach told them to do it, they had to do it regardless, even though the players could ask to be traded or go public with the problems. Commissioner Goodell said the “just following orders” defense wouldn’t work.

Commissioner Goodell found, as he did with the Saints’ non-player employees, that it was appropriate to focus on those individuals who had a higher degree of responsibility and whose conduct warranted special attention.

While a significant number of players participated in the pay-for-performance program, whether by contributing funds to the pool or collecting cash rewards, the players disciplined participated at a different and more significant level, Commissioner Goodell noted.

“In assessing player discipline,” Commissioner 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.”

The NFL Players Association was informed of the suspensions and according to the league, has been given much of the material involved in the investigation. The NFL said the NFLPA hasn’t shared information from the NFLPA’s own investigation into the bounty program.

The NFLPA released a statement via Twitter just before 1 p.m.

“After seeing the NFL’s decision letters, the NFLPA still has not received any detailed or specific evidence from the league of these specific players’ involvement in an alleged pay-to-injure program,” NFLPA 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.”

The problem for the NFLPA is that legal options may be limited. The NFL and the NFLPA agreed during collective bargaining to allow all punishment to be the purview of the commissioner and that appeals would be handled by the commissioner as well.

The bounty program could have unintended consequences for former players who are now suing the NFL over concussion problems. The league can argue that if bounties existed in the past, it could be fellow players to blame for concussion issues as much as it was anything the league did or did not do.

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The Saints will look like a vastly different team when they start the season. The team lost two second-round picks, one in 2012 & 2013; were fined $500,000; head coach Sean Payton is suspended for the 2012 season; former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is suspended indefinitely; general manager Mickey Loomis was suspended for the first eight regular season games in 2012 and assistant head coach Joe Vitt will miss the first six regular-season games.