NEW ORLEANS – Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith and the NFL players union left little doubt they remain determined to challenge Commissioner Roger Goodell's authority to suspend players in connection with the league's bounty investigation of the New Orleans Saints.
Goodell ruled Tuesday that Vilma, a linebacker, would remain suspended for the season, while Smith, a defensive end, still would face a four-game ban. The two players, among four who've been wrangling for months with the league, scoffed at the commissioner's latest decision.
Vilma said on Twitter that the new ruling "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 stakes are now somewhat lower for defensive tackle Anthony Hargrove and Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita. Hargrove's suspension effectively stands at two games after Goodell reduced his eight-game ban to seven and gave him credit for five games missed while he was a free agent. Goodell lowered Fujita's suspension from three games to one.
Hargrove and Fujita did not respond to requests for comment, but the NFL Players Association, which has been representing them, 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 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.
Williams, now with St. Louis, has been suspended indefinitely. Saints head coach Sean Payton is serving a full season suspension, while general manager Mickey Loomis is suspended eight games and assistant head coach Joe Vitt six. The Saints, a playoff team the past three seasons, have opened this season 1-4.
The initial player suspensions were vacated during Week 1 of the regular season by an appeal panel created by the league's labor agreement.
The players can delay their new suspensions by appealing again through their labor contract. 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 that began three years 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," Goodell said in a memorandum to the 32 clubs.
The panel that vacated Goodell's initial disciplinary decision did not address the merits of the league's investigation. It asked Goodell to clarify the extent to which his ruling involved conduct detrimental to the game, 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. Goodell's new ruling did make a financial concession to the Saints linebacker, saying he can be paid for the six weeks he is spending on the Saints' physically unable to perform list.
In a written statement, Smith said he remained frustrated "with the continued unilateral rulings by this commissioner as he continues to disregard the facts and assault my character."
"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," Smith said. "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 players declined to meet with Goodell before he made his initial disciplinary rulings in early May or during the first appeal process.
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 on various points. 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."
Vilma has indicated previously that he would be inclined to continue fighting his suspension before U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan. The judge 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."