NEW ORLEANS – The NFL Players Association filed documents in federal court disputing Commissioner Roger Goodell's sworn statement that he was prepared to discipline players for their involvement in the Saints bounty pool back in March but waited until May as a courtesy to the union.
Attorneys for four players suspended in the bounty investigation have argued the punishment handed down by Goodell should be overturned, in part because the commissioner's public statements last spring showed he had improperly pre-judged the players' actions.
The documents filed Friday include sworn declarations by sanctioned linebacker Scott Fujita and union chief DeMaurice Smith. Fujita reiterated comments he made in an interview with The Associated Press in June in which he described a phone conversation he had with Goodell in March.
"During our phone conversation on or about March 20, Mr. Goodell told me that he would be coming down hard with punishments on Saints coaches, but that with respect to Saints players, he was not quite sure what he had on them, and that player punishments would therefore take some time," Fujita's declaration said.
U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan had asked for the league and union to file evidence this week related to the NFL's contention that Goodell delayed ruling on the players only because he was asked to do so by the union while it conducted its own bounty probe.
In a declaration filed Thursday, Goodell stated he agreed in a phone conversation with Smith "to address discipline of the club and non-player employees and then to afford the NFLPA a reasonable opportunity to conduct its own investigation and express its views before I imposed discipline on the players."
Smith, however, stated in his Friday declaration that while a phone conversation with the commissioner took place, he and Goodell never reached the agreement the commissioner described.
The NFLPA also noted in its filing that as late as April 24, Goodell was quoted in media reports saying he and league investigators "have been continuing our work" investigating player conduct, and "I hope to reach those decisions very soon."
Goodell disciplined the Saints, coaches and general manager Mickey Loomis on March 21. Head coach Sean Payton was suspended for the entire season, while Loomis was docked half a season and assistant head coach Joe Vitt six games. Former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was suspended indefinitely for running the bounty program, which the NFL said paid defensive players improper cash bonuses for hits that injured opponents from 2009 through 2011.
During the following weeks leading up to May 2, Goodell made public comments describing player involvement in the Saints bounty pool, including statements that Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma had offered $10,000 bounties on quarterbacks Kurt Warner and Brett Favre during the 2009-10 playoffs.
NFL attorneys have argued that Goodell was performing his duty to keep the public informed on what league investigators had uncovered — information he had used to make his judgment in the matter as the league's labor agreement allows.
Goodell later suspended Vilma for the entire season, and he is currently barred from Saints headquarters, where he was hoping to rehabilitate from offseason knee surgery.
Saints defensive end Will Smith has been suspended for the first four regular-season games and is currently participating in the preseason.
Two former Saints who are still active also were suspended: Green Bay defensive end Anthony Hargrove was penalized eight games and Fujita, now with Cleveland, got three games.
Vilma has asked Berrigan to grant a temporary restraining order that would allow him to return to the Saints while his case proceeds, and the judge has said she would be inclined to rule in his favor because she found the NFL's disciplinary process in the bounty matter unfair and the punishment excessive. However, she has held off while trying to determine if she has jurisdiction to intervene in the NFL's collectively bargained disciplinary process and has urged all sides to try to settle out of court.