NEW YORK -- A former U.S. attorney hired by the NFL to evaluate its investigation of the New Orleans Saints' bounty program said Thursday the evidence shows players received payments for hits on targeted opponents.
Mary Jo White said in a conference call that evidence in the league's investigation of the three-year, pay-for-pain system provided "an unusually strong record" and came from people with "firsthand knowledge and corroborated by documentation."
When asked twice whether any players actually were paid for hits, White confirmed they were, without going into specifics. She added that most of the money in the bounty scheme was provided by the players.
"Without them, there wouldn't have been a bounty program," she said.
White, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, was asked last December by the NFL to examine the evidence.
"The factual basis for the sanctions is quite strong in my opinion," she said. "You must safeguard the identity of people that provide information to you in order to protect them, and also to encourage others in the future to come forward with evidence of wrongdoing. This is certainly not a one-on-one, he-said, she-said record at all. This is multiple independent sources."
White saw no merit in complaints from the players' union that it had not received "detailed or specific evidence from the league of specific players' involvement in an alleged pay-to-injure program."
"The players sanctioned all activity and enthusiastically embraced this program," White said. "They always had the option to say no. They didn't say no.
"It is no defense that coaches were involved in it, this was an individual responsibility each player has and each coach has. Each player had the responsibility to say no to this program and they didn't do that. They obviously had the option to report this to the union and they didn't do that."
Richard Smith, outside counsel for the union, disputed White's evaluation of the evidence.
"I was at the meeting with the NFL's lead investigators in March. She was not there," Smith said. "Anyone, especially former prosecutors like both of us, know that what the league provided could never be called 'substantial evidence' of player participation in a pay-to-injure program.
"Worse yet, Mary Jo provided nothing new or compelling today beyond another press briefing."
NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith and Domonique Foxworth, the recently elected union president, are in New Orleans talking with Saints players.
The four current and former New Orleans players suspended -- linebacker Jonathan Vilma for the 2012 season; defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, now with Green Bay, for eight games; defensive end Will Smith, for four games; and linebacker Scott Fujita, now with Cleveland and a member of the union's executive board, for three games -- were given three days to appeal when commissioner Roger Goodell handed down the punishment Wednesday.
The NFLPA did not say when appeals might be filed, but said after the penalties were handed down that it would pursue all options on the Saints players' behalf. When asked on his Twitter account if he planned to appeal, Vilma said: "definitely."
Vilma and Will Smith released statements Wednesday denying any involvement in a bounty program and pledging to fight their penalties.
The league said no player agreed to be interviewed in person, and the players also declined to send someone to argue on their behalf, league sources told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter. As one NFL source said, "They took the Fifth Amendment."
The NFLPA did not share information from its own investigation, and league sources told Schefter that the union never recommended any discipline in the case.
A Saints source who testified during the league's investigation told ESPN's Ed Werder Wednesday that he believed the league's findings are exaggerated. The source said that while the report said the program existed for three seasons, it was limited to playoff games in the Superdome against Arizona and Minnesota in 2009.
The source told Werder that the program began when former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was concerned about creating a higher level of motivation for his defensive players as they prepared for the postseason.
According to the source, before a team meeting, Williams told Vilma that he had a plan, and the coach provided Vilma with the $10,000 he offered to any teammate who knocked out quarterback Kurt Warner.
The source said Vilma returned the money to Williams following the meeting.
According to the source, Williams believed the financial reward created the proper defensive mindset. So Williams and Vilma repeated the scenario the next week before playing the Vikings and quarterback Brett Favre, who was the victim of several illegal hits and had to be helped from the field, but finished the game.
Information from ESPN's Ed Werder, ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter and The Associated Press was used in this report.