Four players, including linebacker Jonathan Vilma, were suspended Wednesday by the NFL for their roles in the New Orleans Saints’ bounty program. Vilma was suspended for the entire 2012 season. The other three players, two of them no longer with the Saints, received lesser penalties.

Former Saints defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, now with Green Bay, was suspended for eight games, Saints defensive lineman Will Smith was suspended for four games and former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita, now with Cleveland, was suspended for three games.

Jonathan Vilma (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

The league, in a written release, cited the players for their leadership roles in the bounty program, which paid players over the past three seaons for hits that injured opponents.

The Saints had no immediate comment.

According to the league’s statement, the NFL concluded that Vilma offered his defensive teammates $10,000 to knock Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner out of a divisional playoff game, and the same amount to put quarterback Brett Favre, then with the Minnesota Vikings, out of the NFC championship game, both of which were played after the 2009 season.

According to the NFL’s statement, Fujita “pledged a significant amount of money” to the bounty pool. Hargrove “actively participated” in it, told another player about Favre being targeted and then “actively obstructed the league’s 2010 being untruthful to investigators.”

Smith, a defensive end, helped then-Saints’ defensive coordinator Gregg Williams establish and fund the program as a captain of the Saints defense and pledged “significant sums to the program pool for ‘cart-offs’ and ‘knockouts’ of opposing players,” according to the NFL’s statement.

In a written statement, Vilma said he was “shocked and extremely disappointed by the NFL’s decision” and denied offering $10,000 to have Warner and Favre knocked from playoff games.

“I never set out to intentionally hurt any player and never enticed any teammate to intentionally hurt another player,” Vilma said in his statement. “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.”

Vilma said he intends “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.”

Smith also denied the accusations against him in a written statement and said he plans to appeal.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell previously suspended Saints Coach Sean Payton for the entire season, General Manager Mickey Loomis for a half-season, assistant head coach Joe Vitt for six games and Williams indefinitely in connection with the bounty scandal.

The Saints were fined $500,000 and stripped of a pair of second-round draft choices, though the league has announced that the team’s loss of its 2013 second-round pick could be modified.

Williams, now the defensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams, did not appeal his suspension. His case will be reviewed following the 2012 season.

Goodell said in a statement Wednesday that “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.”

But DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, said in a statement that “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. 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 Saints have signed linebackers Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne and Chris Chamberlain as free agents, which could reduce the impact of Vilma’s season-long suspension. Smith had 6-1/2 sacks last season.

Saints running back Mark Ingram wrote on Twitter that the suspensions were making the team’s players “hungrier” and “putting a bigger chip” on their shoulders.

Former San Francisco 49ers offensive lineman Randy Cross said losing Vilma “is a big deal” in terms of the on-field impact on the Saints.

“I thought it was going to be around six [players suspended] so I guess it’s less than I expected,” Cross said in a telephone interview. “It seems so indiscriminate. A culture isn’t four people—or six people, if you count two [defensive] coaches. If 20-something guys are contributing to this fund, why are four suspended? The whole process has been so flawed…. [But] the overall message reinforces how serious they are about safety issues now.”

During an interview last week with the league-owned NFL Network, Goodell said: “The evidence is quite clear that the players embraced this. They enthusiastically embraced it. They put the vast majority of the money into the program and they actually are the ones playing the game. They are on the field so I don’t think they are absolved from any responsibility because of [the role of the coaches and the team]. I think everyone bears responsibility here.

“We have held the executives and the coaches to a higher standard but the players need to recognize, they need to make sure, that this is not happening either, and that was the whole point that I made with the Players Association.”

The NFL’s investigation of the Saints concluded that 22 to 27 players were involved in the bounty program.

The program was funded primarily by players, according to the league’s investigation. Players were paid for hits that resulted in opponents being taken from the field or left unable to return to a game, as well as for big plays such as interceptions and fumble recoveries, according to the NFL investigation.

Any appeals by players of their suspensions must be filed within three days, the league announced, and would be heard by Goodell. Vilma’s suspension takes effect immediately. The other three players are permitted to participate in offseason activities with their teams, according to the league.

Hargrove submitted a written statement in which he did not dispute the existence of the bounty program, according to the NFL. None of the players who were suspended accepted the league’s invitation to be interviewed with an attorney present, the league said..

The league also announced that Goodell had given the union the names of the other players implicated in the investigation. Goodell “again invited the union to provide recommendations on how best to promote fair play, player safety and the elimination of bounties from the game at all levels,” the league’s announcement 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,” Goodell said in the league’s written release. “Respect for the men that play the game starts with the way players conduct themselves with each other on the field.”

The NFL said it sent a memo to teams Wednesday to re-emphasize that any program that rewards players with financial bonuses not in their contracts violates league rules. The league will require each team’s head coach to review the rules governing such programs with players and assistant coaches before the season. Players will be given information and told how to report violations confidentially and the NFL intends to institute programs stressing fair and safe play.

Officials from the players’ union had previously spoken to league representatives about the case but it did not appear that the union made a formal recommendation to the league about what penalties, if any, it thought should be imposed. Union officials have said during the process that they believe there is no room in the sport for intentionally injuring an opponent but also wanted to ensure that any players accused of misconduct were treated fairly.

Goodell has said that the NFL is not finished investigating allegations that the Washington Redskins and Buffalo Bills had similar bounty programs when Williams coached those teams. Williams oversaw the Redskins’ defense between the 2004 and 2007 seasons.

More on NFL bounties:

Redskins, Saints had bounty systems

Wise: ‘An ugly tradition’

Hard Hits: Bounties or not, pro football is brutal

Eli Manning: Bounties can’t be part of football

Charles Barkley: “You have to be a punk to snitch that out.”