Four Saints defensive players "who the league said were ringleaders of the bounties in their heyday during the 2009 playoffs" yesterday were given suspensions as part of the investigation into the team's bounty program, according to a front-page piece by James Varney of the New Orleans TIMES-PICAYUNE. Saints LB Jonathan Vilma “was suspended for a year without pay,” while DE Will Smith “received a four-game suspension without pay.” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell “also hit two former Saints players” -- Packers DT Anthony Hargrove got an eight-game suspension, while Browns LB Scott Fujita recieved a three-game ban. The moves “bring to a close the punishment ... meted out in response" to the NFL's investigation. Vilma yesterday issued a statement in which he "broke his long silence on the bounty scandal.” He lashed out at Goodell's action, "insisting he never encouraged or offered financial rewards for deliberately injurious play.” Vilma also “vowed to pursue his options.” The NFLPA in a statement referred to a comment Vilma made "about the lack of hard evidence made public thus far.” Varney cites sources as saying that Vilma and the other players “did not meet with Goodell in New York, despite the league's invitation to do so, because without any hard evidence, the players could find themselves in a worse position.” The four players have three days to appeal the suspensions, though it "would go right back to Goodell.” That was “the path followed” by coach Sean Payton who received a full year suspension, GM Mickey Loomis who was given an eight game ban, and assistant coach Joe Vitt, who was suspended for six games (New Orleans TIMES-PICAYUNE, 5/3). NFLPA Exec Dir DeMaurice Smith in the statement said, “We will vigorously protect and pursue all options on their behalf.” USA TODAY’s Nate Davis notes the CBA “essentially makes Goodell judge and jury for off-field conduct, which is where this falls.” The players “can’t appeal to anyone but the commissioner and might have difficulty getting the case into the judicial system.” NFL Network's Heath Evans, who played for the Saints from '09-10, said, “It’s an uphill battle to suspend a player for eight games without hard evidence. They will probably fight this to the Supreme Court” (USA TODAY, 5/3).
LONG ROAD AHEAD: ESPN's Adam Schefter cited a source as saying that “all four players suspensions will be appealed.” The source said, “Get ready for a massive multiple legal battle over this on several fronts” (ESPN.com, 5/2). YAHOO SPORTS’ Jason Cole wrote, “As quickly as Goodell might want to resolve this, the wheels of justice tend to be slow.” An attorney said that the four player suspensions “aren’t months away from being decided." The attorney: "Try years. ... This is going to be complex on multiple levels.” The attorney added, “They’ll fight this to the death, I have no doubt. You don't fight with Roger out in public and expect that he's going to back down. You fight with him in private and make it so that he can look like he has everything under control" (SPORTS.YAHOO.com, 5/2). Denver-based Authentic Athletix player agent Peter Schaeffer said, “It's another example of the commissioner's overbearing power in the league to suspend players for actions of coaches. If they were any of my players, we would fight this to the bitter end" (DENVER POST, 5/3).
THE MEMO: NFL.com’s Albert Breer noted chief execs and presidents for all 32 NFL teams received a memo from the league “that reiterated the major points of the league’s press release” announcing the punishments. The memo “also provided additional detail into the investigation itself and the problems with the NFL Players Association on this matter.” The letter specifically referenced the "audio secretly taped and provided to Yahoo! Sports by filmmaker Sean Pamphilon of then-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' speech.” The statement read in part, “While the NFLPA has publicly stated that it conducted its own investigation into this matter, the union has shared no information with us from that investigation. As one example, we learned that the union may have had the tape recording of a speech given before the divisional playoff game between the Saints and the San Francisco 49ers this past January. Although a version of this tape recording has been widely publicized, the union has never shared it with us." A union source said that the NFLPA “was aware of the Williams audio, but was not in possession of it.” The source “emphasized that the union investigation has turned up no evidence of players directing any bounty or pay-to-injure program.” Goodell in the memo said, "We also took the step of engaging Mary Jo White, the former United States Attorney for New York, at an early stage of the investigation in order to ensure both the fairness of the process and the reliability of the information on which our decisions were made in the Saints matter" (NFL.com, 5/2).
NFL faces numerous lawsuits from former players
NOT AS BAD AS IT COULD HAVE BEEN: In New Orleans, John DeShazier in a front-page piece writes a “persuasive argument can be made that the New Orleans Saints got off light.” When the league announced that 22 to 27 Saints players participated in the program -- and Goodell said players "'willingly and enthusiastically embraced’ a concept in which financial rewards were pledged in exchange for injuring opposing players -- the thought was that the suspensions would be so numerous, Goodell would have to stagger them so the Saints could have enough players to field a defense that looked like it belonged on an NFL field” (New Orleans TIMES-PICAYUNE, 5/3). ESPN.com’s Fox wrote Goodell “dropped the hammer on the most important men atop the Saints organization.” Therefore he “had to do the same thing to the leadership of the Saints’ defense.” The only thing “particularly surprising about the long-awaited suspensions is that Goodell did not issue more.” Goodell “could have crippled the Saints.” But instead he “acted with at least a little restraint” (ESPN.com, 5/2). YAHOO SPORTS’ Dan Wetzel wrote the Saints “made out OK” yesterday. The NFL “acted appropriately” as the league “put a premium on the people who set up the bounty system, promoted it and funded it -- not the ones who merely participated” (SPORTS.YAHOO.com, 5/2). ESPN's Michael Smith said, "The Saints as an organization, and for that matter their fans, ought to be counting their blessings right now.” Two of the four players suspended “aren’t even on the team” anymore ("Numbers Never Lie," ESPN2, 5/2). ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser: “I thought there were going to be a lot more players suspended than this” ("PTI," ESPN, 5/2).
MAKING AN EXAMPLE OF VILMA: CBSSPORTS.com’s Ray Ratto wrote what Goodell did yesterday with the punishments “was try to equate what the players did with what those in the real position of authority did, and that is simply daft.” Vilma “got the same suspension” as Payton and Hargrove “got the same punishment as Mickey Loomis,” while Fujita and Smith “combined got one game more" than Vitt. Ratto: “We’re not sure if a year is right for Vilma, but we are sure that his responsibility is not the same as Payton's.” But in football, “more than any other sport, the hierarchy is unshakable.” The players “cannot be equally responsible to the coaches for the same crime” (CBSSPORTS.com, 5/2). ESPN’s Jemele Hill said of the suspensions, “I don’t like the message that this sends.” Vilma's year-long ban “says you consider (him) just as culpable as Sean Payton." Hill called that "ridiculous” because Payton is “in charge” ("Numbers Never Lie," ESPN2, 5/2). ESPN.com’s Mark Kreidler wrote Vilma is “a tool being manipulated by a commissioner trying to make much larger points.” The season-long suspension of Vilma “was so over the top that it had to be for effect, and indeed it was.” Kreidler: “The severity of Vilma's punishment, in fact, leaves me with the strong impression that Goodell knows full well bounty systems exist in locker rooms around the NFL, however loosely structured and clumsily implemented they may be.” Goodell “wants them stopped, even though almost any football cynic could tell you that'll never happen” (ESPN.com, 5/2). ESPN’s Matt Hasselbeck said Goodell “basically just drew a line in the sand of where he thought, ‘Well, this amount of involvement is going to warrant a suspension and anything less than that is just going to go away.’” Hasselbeck: “It does rub me the wrong way that some of this discipline appears to be as much a challenge to the NFLPA as it is about the principle of deciding to suspend some of these players for their actions” (“NFL Live,” ESPN, 5/2).
ROCK AND A HARD PLACE: In L.A., Sam Farmer writes the NFLPA “is in a tricky position.” The union “immediately responded to the sanctions, saying it has not received any detailed or specific information on the involvement of the four players punished.” However, the union "doesn't just represent the suspended players but all NFL players, including those targeted.” If the NFLPA “goes out of its way to protect Saints who were targeting other players, the union will look less like an advocate for all players and more like a group that blindly opposes anything that has to do with management” (L.A. TIMES, 5/3). ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert wrote, “Why isn't the union jumping to the defense of the targeted players?” The story has thus far “centered around the aggressors.” Seifert: “What about the victims?” (ESPN.com, 5/2). USA TODAY’s Jarrett Bell writes it is a “shame” that Smith and the union are “apparently more energized to appeal the suspensions … than to fight for the protection of the Michael Crabtrees, Frank Gores and Cam Newtons said to have been targeted by bounties” (USA TODAY, 5/3). USA TODAY’s Christine Brennan writes NFL Exec VP/Labor & General Counsel Jeff Pash “has expressed frustration that the NFLPA is more concerned about protecting the New Orleans Four than the players they targeted.” Brennan: “Good for the NFL for calling the union on that one.” It is “one thing for a union to make sure players have the right to appeal if they want to” But it is “quite another to actively fight for the exoneration of a few bad apples when they affect the health and well-being of so many others” (USA TODAY, 5/3). SB Nation's Bomani Jones said, “What everybody’s saying is that the union needs to sell individual players out, and all of us are too smart to think that such a thing is ever going to happen." Jones: "That’s one of the difficulties for the union in this case, the idea that the union needs to sell its guys out and recommend punishment” (“Around The Horn,” ESPN, 5/2).