Why were only four Saints defenders punished?

It came in the first sentence of one of the most shocking and important press releases the NFL had ever issued: “A lengthy investigation by the NFL’s security department has disclosed that between 22 and 27 defensive players on the New Orleans Saints, as well as at least one assistant coach, maintained a “bounty” program funded primarily by players in violation of NFL rules during the 2009, 2010 and 2011 seasons.”

That 1,050-word document, sprung on unsuspecting football fans on a dull Friday afternoon, detailed exactly how the Saints were dirtier than, I dunno, a potent combination of John Edwards, Ke$ha and Capone.

The investigation, the league said, “included the review of approximately 18,000 documents totaling more than 50,000 pages, interviews of a wide range of individuals and the use of outside forensic experts to verify the authenticity of key documents.” Further, it added that, again, “between 22 and 27 defensive players contributed funds to the pool over the course of three NFL seasons.”

And yet on Wednesday, only four of those players were punished for the roles they played in the pay-for-performance program in New Orleans. Assuming the Saints don’t make the playoffs this season, and assuming nothing changes on appeal, that quartet will be forced to miss a combined 31 games. That number could grow as high as 35, as alleged ringleader Jonathan Vilma is out for the entire year, including the playoffs.

Further evidence is likely forthcoming when appeals are filed, but the league’s case against all four players, and especially Vilma, appears to be quite strong. “Multiple independent sources” claim the team’s defensive captain helped former defensive coordinator-turned-pariah Gregg Williams establish and fund the bounty program. Those sources also have him putting thousands of dollars on heads belonging to future Hall of Famers Brett Favre and Kurt Warner.

As for the three other guilty parties: Scott Fujita (now with the Browns) and Will Smith get three and four games, respectively, for pledging large sums of money as cash rewards for “cart-offs” and “knockouts.” Smith probably gets the extra game due to the fact that he allegedly helped Williams organize the fund during his run as defensive captain. Finally, Anthony Hargrove (now with the Packers) loses eight games for a) his participation, and b) “actively [obstructing] the league’s 2010 investigation into the program by being untruthful to investigators.”

The league office claimed to have evidence that as many as 23 other players were involved in the shenanigans, and yet they’re only frying the four biggest fish.

Why stop at four? I suppose it’s possible that the NFL wasn’t as confident in its evidence against the rest of the defenders. Or maybe it simply wasn’t worth it for the league to drag even more names into the scandal if the rest of those players’ actions didn’t merit long suspensions. As apparent bounty dictators, Vilma and Smith had to meet the guillotine. And as an obstructer of justice, Hargrove had no chance to get off the hook. Fujita’s involvement seems to be the least intense among the four, but I suppose that’s why he was only slapped with a trio of games. I also get a feeling his potential appeal would stand the best chance.

I’m guessing the league is satisfied with the point made. A head coach and a star linebacker are gone for the year, a crooked coordinator might be gone forever, a general manager and a bounty-hunting liar are out for half the season, an assistant/accomplice will miss six games, and two other relatively well-known culprits will miss a few games each.

We’re still waiting on appeals but as of right now, eight bounty delinquents will miss a total of 77 games this year.

“In assessing player discipline,” commissioner Roger Goodell said yesterday, “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.”

Goodell isn’t trying to (further) cripple the Saints organization or drag a slew of names through the mud. He could have hit two dozen or so other players with staggered suspensions and fines, but that might have done more harm than good. Now he has his eight fall guys, just as, somewhat ironically, baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis did with the Black Sox nearly a century ago.

The identities of the other players involved in this scandal might never be revealed (although the league has sent the NFLPA the list). And if the NFL decided that it wasn’t worth tainting those names, it’s probably safe to assume that they were simply good teammates, playing along like soldiers and abiding by a popular moral code that condemns snitches.

About Brad Gagnon

Brad Gagnon has been passionate about both sports and mass media since he was in diapers -- a passion that won't die until he's in them again. Based in Toronto, he's worked as a national NFL blog editor at theScore.com, a producer and writer at theScore Television Network and a host, reporter and play-by-play voice at Rogers TV. His work has also appeared at CBSSports.com, Deadspin, FoxSports.com, The Guardian, The Hockey News and elsewhere at Comeback Media, but his day gig has him covering the NFL nationally for Bleacher Report.