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Bradley Handwerger / WWLTV.com Sports Reporter
Email: bhandwerger@wwltv.com | Twitter: @wwltvsports

NEW ORLEANS The NFL levied a heavy-handed punishment of the Saints today, ending more than two weeks of speculation after the league first announced its wide-ranging investigation into a pay for performance program the franchise ran during a three-year period.

Saints coach Sean Payton will be suspended for an entire season, beginning April 1, while former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is suspended indefinitely, effective immediately.

The franchise has been fined $500,000 and docked second-round picks in both 2012 and 2013 while general manager Mickey Loomis has been suspended without pay for the first eight-regular season games.

Additionally, linebackers coach Joe Vitt is suspended for the first six regular-season games of 2012

'We are all accountable and responsible for player health and safety and the integrity of the game,' NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said. 'We will not tolerate conduct or a culture that undermines those priorities. No one is above the game or the rules that govern it. Respect for the game and the people who participate in it will not be compromised.

'A combination of elements made this matter particularly unusual and egregious. When there is targeting of players for injury and cash rewards over a three-year period, the involvement of the coaching staff, and three years of denials and willful disrespect of the rules, a strong and lasting message must be sent that such conduct is totally unacceptable and has no place in the game.'

Player suspensions and fines are expected at a later date.

Meanwhile, Goodell said that while the league investigated other potential bounty programs that were brought to light following the NFL's original report, it found no evidence that established other franchises hosted similar programs to New Orleans'.

'While I will not address player conduct at this time, I am profoundly troubled by the fact that players including leaders among the defensive players embraced this program so enthusiastically and participated with what appears to have been a deliberate lack of concern for the well-being of their fellow players,' Goodell said.

The latest release sheds more light onto what the NFL believes is foul play.

The league found bounties on Brett Favre, Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers and Kurt Warner and says multiple sources told it that linebacker Jonathan Vilma ponied up $10,000 for any player who knocked Favre out of the 2010 NFC championship game.

Williams, meanwhile, was caught lying to the NFL in 2010 when he was first questioned about the program and made no attempt to stop it afterward, occasionally putting money into the pot himself.

And in 2010, when the NFL spoke with Vitt about the program, he 'fabricated the truth' to investigators despite actually knowing about it, the league said.

Payton instructed Vitt to 'monitor' Williams, the league said, because the head coach didn't trust his defensive coordinator. Vitt told the NFL he never told Payton or Loomis about the pay for performance program despite being instructed to alert his bosses of such matters.

More damning, though, is that the NFL said it has sources that claim Payton knew about the program despite him telling the league he knew nothing about it. Payton received an email from a close associate, now known to be Mike Ornstein, requesting that he be put down for a $5,000 bounty on Rodgers for the season opener.

On March 2, the NFL set forth a wildfire of appall and amazement by releasing findings it says clearly points towards the Saints running a bounty program from 2009-11 under Williams.

In all, between 22 and 27 players were involved in the program.

Initiated in 2009, the year the Saints made the Super Bowl, players were getting paid extra money under the table for big plays that included 'cart-offs' and knockouts, according to the NFL.

Those plays earned $1,000 and $1,500, respectively, under the system run by Williams, who occasionally put money in the kitty, the NFL alleges.

At some point during that season, the pool reached nearly $50,000, the report says.

When asked by the NFL about whether he had any knowledge of the program, the league says Loomis claimed he did not, but promised to stop it.

A year later, when the NFL says it made Saints owner Tom Benson aware of pay for performance program, Loomis again was asked to stop the program. Again, the NFL says Loomis made no attempt to halt the practice.

Since the story came to light, both Loomis and Payton have released a joint statement accepting responsibility and declaring that it won't happen again.

Additionally, Payton and Benson have both been to New York to visit with Goodell, the coach to apologize, the owner to again offer continued cooperation.

Williams, now with the St. Louis Rams, issued a statement nearly immediately after the initial allegations came out, accepting responsibility as well. He has since met with Goodell, too.

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