NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell upheld the suspensions of Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith on Tuesday for their role in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal and reduced penalties for Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove.
Though an appeal panel created by the NFL's labor agreement vacated the original suspensions on technical grounds, Goodell ruled he was sticking with his decision to suspend Vilma for the season and Smith for four games.
Hargrove, a free agent defensive lineman, will face a two-game suspension once he signs with a team. He originally was hit with eight games, but that was reduced to seven with five games already served. Fujita, who plays for Cleveland, will now miss only one game instead of three.
The responses of Vilma, Smith and the NFL Players Association left little doubt that the seven-month-old bounty saga is far from over.
Vilma said on Twitter that the new ruling "this is not news to me pride won't let him admit he's wrong." Smith issued a statement saying he will continue to explore his appeal options.
Vilma's attorney, Peter Ginsberg, said in a statement that Goodell's new ruling "continues his previous grossly misplaced interpretation of the `evidence.' What the Commissioner did today is not justice, nor just. The suspension has the fingerprints of lawyers trying to fit a square peg into a round hole."
The players were implicated in what the NFL said was a bounty pool run by former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and paid improper cash bonuses for hits that injured opponents. The players have acknowledged a pool but denied they intended to injure anyone.
The players can delay their suspensions by appealing again through their labor contract, which they have three days to do. They could also ask a federal judge in New Orleans to revisit their earlier request for an injunction blocking the suspensions.
Goodell, meanwhile, stood by the substance of the investigation began when allegations were first brought to the league's attention three seasons ago.
"The quality, specificity and scope of the evidence supporting the findings of conduct detrimental (to the game) are far greater and more extensive than ordinarily available in such cases," Goodell said in a memorandum to the 32 clubs.
Goodell's new ruling comes about a month after an appeal panel vacated the original suspensions on technical grounds during Week 1 of the regular season. The panel did not address the merits of the league's investigation. It merely asked Goodell to clarify to extent to which his ruling involved conduct detrimental to the league, which he has the sole authority to handle, and salary cap violations resulting from bonus payments, which would have to be ruled upon by an arbitrator other than the commissioner.
"In my recent meetings with the players and their counsel, the players addressed the allegations and had an opportunity to tell their side of the story," Goodell wrote. "In those meetings, the players confirmed many of the key facts disclosed in our investigation, most particularly that the program offered cash rewards for `cart-offs,' that players were encouraged to `crank up the John Deere tractor' and have their opponents carted off the field, and that rewards were offered and paid for plays that resulted in opposing players having to leave the field of play."
Only Smith and Fujita have played this season. Vilma has been recovering from offseason knee surgery and hopes to return in two weeks when the Saints play at Tampa Bay. The Saints linebacker is on the physically unable to perform list for the first six weeks of the season and Goodell's new ruling said that Vilma can be paid for that period.
Smith issued a statement after the new rulings were announced.
"I remain frustrated with the continued unilateral rulings by this commissioner as he continues to disregard the facts and assault my character," Smith said in the statement. "Let me be clear-- I never participated in a `pay-to-injure program,' never took the field with intent to injure another player, and never contributed any money to hurt other players. It was my hope that those investigating would put their arrogance and agenda aside in order to comprehend the difference between a `pay-for-performance program' and a `pay-to-injure program,' but until that day, I will continue to pursue my appeal options through the NFLPA, and attempt to return to work for my family, teammates, fans and the city of New Orleans."
The NFLPA also remained critical of Goodell's decision to punish the players and the process by which he reached his decisions.
"For more than six months, the NFL has ignored the facts, abused the process outlined in our collective bargaining agreement and failed to produce evidence that the players intended to injure anyone, ever," the said in a written statement. "The only evidence that exists is the League's gross violation of fair due process, transparency and impartiality during this process. Truth and fairness have been the casualties of the league's refusal to admit that it might have made a mistake."
The players initially declined to meet with Goodell before he made his initial disciplinary rulings in early May or during the first appeal process that lasted until the first week of the regular season.
Goodell began to reconsider his disciplinary actions after the Sept. 7 appeal panel ruling and this time all four players agreed to meet with him. During those meetings the NFL produced sworn declarations by Williams and another former defensive assistant, Mike Cerullo, in which they stated that they observed Vilma offering what they believed were $10,000 rewards for knocking then-Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner and then-Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre out of 2009-10 playoff games.
Ginsberg, however, said Cerullo's and Williams' sworn statements are not credible because they conflict with one another. Ginsberg noted that Cerullo swore he gave Vilma's $10,000 to Williams after the Warner bounty was not "earned," while Williams swore he never received money from Cerullo. Ginsberg also said the commissioner ignored the sworn testimony in federal court of several current and former teammates who denied the league's accusations against Vilma.
"Commissioner Goodell has further damaged Jonathan's reputation, compromised his career, and cast an unfair cloud over a fine and decent man," Ginsberg said. "It is unfortunate that the process exhibited by the NFL has had no decency."
While Ginsberg did not immediately say whether he would take the matter back to federal court, Vilma has indicated he would be inclined to do so. U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan has stated that she found the NFL's disciplinary process unfair and that she would be inclined to grant Vilma at least a temporary restraining order if she believed she had jurisdiction on the matter.
However, Berrigan also has stated that she is hesitant to rule until she is certain the players have exhausted all possible remedies available to them through the NFL's collective bargaining agreement.
The other three players have been represented by the NFLPA, which stated it will carefully review Goodell's latest decision and "protect our players' rights with vigilance," but did not disclose any immediate plans to take the matter back to court.