NFL upholds player discipline in Saints bounty case

The NFL announced late Tuesday that the four players suspended for all or part of the 2012 season — Jonathan Vilma, Anthony Hargrove, Will Smith and Scott Fujita — will not have their suspensions reduced for their roles in the New Orleans Saints’ bounty program.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sent a letter to each of the four players, in which he upheld his earlier decision to suspend Vilma for the entire 2012 season, Hargrove for the first eight games, Smith for the first four games and Fujita for the first three games. Vilma and Smith are still part of the Saints, while Hargrove plays for the Green Bay Packers and Fujita is a member of the Cleveland Browns.

All four attended the league’s appeal hearing in New York City on June 18, but on advice of their counsel, did not address the matter with Goodell or other NFL officials at the meeting, only choosing to view selected evidence that the league had in its possession. Vilma has filed a pair of lawsuits in Louisiana-based federal courts, one accusing Goodell of defamation of character and one stating Goodell did not make a timely decision in the appeal process. Vilma is seeking a temporary restraining order to keep his season-long suspension from taking effect.

Lawyers for the players had attempted to challenge the authority of the commissioner to hear appeals in the matter, but a pair of independent arbitrators jointly appointed by the NFL and NFLPA rejected the argument based on the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Goodell’s letter to the players includes the following passages:

“Throughout this entire process, including your appeals, and despite repeated invitations and encouragement to do so, none of you has offered any evidence that would warrant reconsideration of your suspensions. Instead, you elected not to participate meaningfully in the appeal process…”

“Although you claimed to have been ‘wrongfully accused with insufficient evidence,’ your lawyers elected not to ask a single question of the principal investigators, both of whom were present at the hearing (as your lawyers had requested); you elected not to testify or to make any substantive statement, written or oral, in support of your appeal; you elected not to call a single witness to support your appeal; and you elected not to introduce a single exhibit addressing the merits of your appeal. Instead, your lawyers raised a series of jurisdictional and procedural objections that generally ignore the CBA, in particular its provisions governing ‘conduct detrimental’ determinations…”

Goodell reiterated the process followed prior to determining discipline:

“In sum, I did not make my determinations here lightly. At every stage, I took seriously my responsibilities under the Collective Bargaining Agreement. I determined the discipline for each of you

(1) only after a long, detailed and professional investigation by NFL Security’s experienced investigators;

(2) only after the results of that investigation were carefully reviewed by an independent expert, former United States Attorney Mary Jo White;

(3) only after I heard the appeals of the Saints’ coaches and staff regarding discipline for their roles in the program;

(4) only after representatives of NFL Security, along with Mr. Pash and Mr. Birch, spoke with Players Association attorneys at length regarding the investigation; and

(5) only after giving each of you multiple opportunities to meet with the NFL investigators and to share with them your version of the events surrounding the program. The suspensions imposed were reasonable action taken to preserve public confidence in, and the integrity of, the game of professional football.”

Goodell did leave the door open for a possible reduction of penalties should any or all of the players involved choose to meet with him to go over new evidence they wished to present in their defense and make statements to the league in the matter.

“While this decision constitutes my final and binding determination under the CBA, I of course retain the inherent authority to reduce a suspension should facts be brought to my attention warranting the exercise of that discretion. The record confirms that each of you was given multiple chances to meet with me to present your side of the story. You are each still welcome to do so.”

Earlier, the NFL suspended former Saints (and current St. Louis Rams) defensive coordinator Gregg Williams indefinitely, Saints head coach Sean Payton for the entire 2012 season, general manager Mickey Loomis for the first eight games and Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt for the first six games for their roles in the bounty matter. The Saints were also docked second-round picks in the 2012 and 2013 NFL Draft, and the organization was fined $500,000.

The NFLPA issued a statement in the wake of Goodell’s upholding of the suspensions:

“The players are disappointed with the League’s conduct during this process. We reiterate our concerns about the lack of fair due process, lack of integrity of the investigation and lack of the jurisdictional authority to impose discipline under the collective bargaining agreement. Moreover, the Commissioner took actions during this process that rendered it impossible for him to be an impartial arbitrator.

The NFLPA has never and will never condone dangerous or reckless conduct in football and to date, nothing the League has provided proves these players were participants in a pay-to-injure program. We will continue to pursue all options.”

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported via Twitter that Hargrove, Smith and Fujita will file for a temporary injunction in federal court to stop the application of the suspensions.

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