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With players suspended, total discipline in bounty saga staggers

With today's announcement of four players being suspended for their roles in the three-year bounty scandal engulfing the New Orleans Saints, the final score is on the board. Coaches, administrators and defenders who play for, or played for the Saints have been issued suspensions without pay totaling 77 games -- and the team fined $500,000 and docked two second-round draft choices -- for their roles in a scandal that has drawn the heaviest sanctions in league history. The Patriots, in 2007, got docked a total of $750,000 and a first-round draft pick -- but no coach or team employee was suspended -- for videotaping the opposing sidelines during games, ostensibly to gain a competitive advantage.

It's startling in its comparison. And there's no question the NFL Players Association will fight the player sanctions -- linebacker Jonathan Vilma a full season, defensive tackle Anthony Hargrove (now with the Packers) eight games, defensive end Will Smith four games and linebacker Scott Fujita (now with the Browns) three games -- aggressively.

But commissioner Roger Goodell was passionate about the bounty case from the start. Here he was, whacking players with huge fines over the past two seasons for violent hits, and he discovered evidence that the Saints were running a system to ratchet up the compensation for starry defensive performances, and for incentivizing defensive players to intentionally injure Kurt Warner and Brett Favre in the 2009 playoffs.

Once he met with union leaders in Manhattan two weeks ago, Goodell knew he wasn't going to get the kind of cooperation from the NFLPA he'd hoped for, because the union didn't believe the league had enough proof to suspend players. Indeed, NFLPA executive director De Smith said today, "We have made it clear that punishment without evidence is not fair," adding the union has not gotten detailed evidence of the four players' involvement in the bounty program.

It's ironic that, in my Monday column, I recalled a moment spent with Goodell late in 2010, when we were discussing something controversial that he could be at loggerheads with the union about. "We've got good lawyers too,'' Goodell said.

Little did I know that he would enlist one of the most noted attorneys in recent American history to help provide one final check on the evidence the league has on the Saints. Former U.S. attorney Mary Jo White, who successfully prosecuted noted mob boss John Gotti for murder and racketeering in 1992, was brought in by the league to pore over all the evidence. White reviewed the findings of the league's internal investigations (one in early 2010, and a renewed investigation early this year) and reportedly told the league its case is solid.

When the story first broke two months ago, I reported in Sports Illustrated that one Saints player was caught yelling during the NFC Championship Game in January 2010, after Favre was helped off the field due to a brutal high-low hit, "Pay me my money!'' The league's sanctions today lend credence Hargrove being that money-seeking player.

If Hargrove, as the league said in its release today, was suspended eight games after being a whistleblower and doing the league the service of signing a document confirming the existing of the bounty program, the NFL must have something major on him.

Favre was hit so hard and so repeatedly in the game that the league shortly thereafter fined two Saints $25,000 for three separate illegal hits, the last leaving Favre with a badly sprained ankle. That led to NFL Films capturing Hargrove excitedly telling mates on the sidelines, while slapping their hands, "Favre is out of the game! Favre is done! Favre is done!''

Whatever the reasons, the Saints will have the biggest us-against-the-world chip on their shoulders this season. And the rabid New Orleans fans will never, ever think the sanctions fair. But Goodell has drawn the line in the sand with this case. And it's hard to believe any player will ever attempt to injure another player in an NFL game again.