NFC South: Saints punishment

Only fans innocent in Saints' scandal

December, 11, 2012
12/11/12
6:33
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I know there are a lot of New Orleans Saints fans out there celebrating the fact that the player suspensions in the bounty saga have been vacated.

That’s good for the fans because they’re the innocent ones in all this. And innocence is an important item to keep in mind in all of this.

Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, acting as an appeals officer, set the suspensions aside. But he most certainly did not say the players were innocent.

In fact, Tagliabue firmly said that he agreed with current commissioner Roger Goodell’s finding that the Saints ran a three-year bounty program and that linebacker Jonathan Vilma placed a bounty was placed on former Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre.

By dropping the suspensions, Tagliabue might have been doing Goodell a favor. Who would have thought months ago that a defamation suit by Vilma against Goodell still would be lingering? Defamation suits by public figures usually get tossed out of court pretty quickly.

But this one was hanging out there and, with it, so was the possibility of Goodell being brought into a deposition. The rules are broad in scope and Vilma’s attorneys could have asked Goodell about almost anything (concussions, how much money owners make, etc.).

Vilma’s attorney said the suit will continue, but I think the chances of it getting tossed out or dropped went up greatly when Tagliabue made his ruling.

But Tagliabue’s ruling in no way says the Saints were doing the right thing. It just shifted the blame even more toward coach Sean Payton, assistant head coach Joe Vitt, general manager Mickey Loomis and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.

Someone has to take the blame here and maybe Payton, Vitt, Loomis and Williams deserve it more than the players.

As I wrote back in March, the Saints are viewed by a lot of people around the league as being arrogant. A lot of people think the Saints make their own rules. I think Tagliabue's ruling only enhances the idea of a culture of arrogance within the Saints, especially the people inn the highest positions.

They broke rules repeatedly. When the league first started asking about a bounty program three years ago, the Saints denied that was happening. They kept denying it and that’s why no one has been exonerated.

The players won’t face suspensions. But Vitt already served a six-game suspension and Loomis served an eight-game suspension. Payton is suspended for the entire season and Williams is banned indefinitely.

There was wrong doing in New Orleans. The league just shifted the blame for that away from the players and toward the people at the top of the organizational flow chart.
I just finished reading the entire order by former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue that vacated player suspensions in the New Orleans Saints bounty matter.

Tagliabue’s ruling is very lengthy (22 pages), so if you don’t have time to read it all, let me summarize it and provide some highlights.

First off, Tagliabue makes it abundantly clear on repeated occasions that he found current commissioner Roger Goodell’s findings that the Saints ran a three-year bounty program to be accurate. Tagliabue said linebacker Jonathan Vilma, defensive end Will Smith and former New Orleans defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove engaged in conduct detrimental to the game, although he ruled that former New Orleans linebacker Scott Fujita did not take part in detrimental conduct.

Tagliabue criticized the behavior of New Orleans players that took part in the bounty program, but, as I read the ruling, it became very clear that he’s shifting most of the blame to coaches and the front office.

The biggest theme I saw as I went through the document was Tagliabue pointing to the behavior of coach Sean Payton, assistant head coach Joe Vitt, former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and general manager Mickey Loomis as being way out of bounds.

Below are some excerpts where Tagliabue addresses that theme:
  • “The Program eventually led to allegations of a bounty being placed on (former Minnesota quarterback Brett) Favre. Making matters far more serious -- as well as challenging for Commissioner Goodell and League investigators -- Saints’ coaches and managers led a deliberate, unprecedented and effective effort to obstruct the NFL’s investigation into the Program and the alleged bounty.’’
  • “These suspensions thus deprived the Saints of vitally important coaching and leadership talent, and they represented a severe competitive penalty for the Saints’ team, its fans and indirectly for the New Orleans / Gulf Coast region. Commissioner Goodell’s findings and the resulting suspensions of these Saints’ personnel are final and no longer subject to appeal.’’
  • “There is evidence in the record that suggests that Commissioner Goodell could have disciplined a greater number of Saints’ players for the events that occurred here. This sad chapter in the otherwise praiseworthy history of the New Orleans Saints casts no executive, coach or player in a favorable light.
  • “It is important to note that Commissioner Goodell has been forced to address the issues of misconduct by some individuals in the Saints’ organization since early 2010 to the present. Due to the indefensible obstruction of justice by Saints’ personnel, which included admitted efforts of coaches to mislead or otherwise deny the existence of a bounty or the Program, a disciplinary process that should have taken weeks is verging on three years."
  • “Vitt admitted to NFL investigators in 2012 that he “fabricated the truth” when he spoke to an NFL investigator in March 2010 about whether there had been a bounty on Favre. He later claimed that his admitted fabrication was just “stretching the truth” because he failed to describe for investigators the emotionalism of the defensive team meeting the night before the NFC Championship Game."
  • “There is no question that Coach Williams and other coaches orchestrated the Program to incentivize cart-offs and knockouts; carefully choreographed defensive team meetings, including presenting graphic slide presentations showing injuries to opposing players; ensured that any player who would speak at team meetings was adequately prepared or supported; and generally created an atmosphere in the 2009 season and playoffs that suggested to Saints’ players that offering a $10,000 bounty to injure an opposing player was permissible behavior."

Call It: Was Tagliabue right or wrong?

December, 11, 2012
12/11/12
3:45
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By now, we know that former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, acting as an appeals officer, vacated all player discipline in the New Orleans Saints bounty case.

SportsNation

Do you agree with Paul Tagliabue's decision to vacate all player suspensions in the Saints' bounty case?

  •  
    61%
  •  
    39%

Discuss (Total votes: 173,610)

As I wrote earlier, this comes across as convoluted because Tagliabue also said he found the fact finding of current commissioner Roger Goodell to be correct and the Saints did run a three-year bounty program. But mixed messages like that often happen when you get lawyers involved and people are worried about covering every angle.

But let’s boil this whole thing down to one simple question and let’s put the answer in your hands: Did Tagliabue make the right call?

Look to your right and cast your vote in our SportsNation poll. Then, share your logic in the comments section below.

Following the money in bounty saga

December, 11, 2012
12/11/12
3:06
PM ET
I’ve been in contact with ESPN business analyst Andrew Brandt ever since the news came out that former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue vacated the player suspensions in the New Orleans Saints’ bounty case.

The one thing Brandt repeatedly has said is that the players continued to get their paychecks throughout the process. That’s significant because we’re talking about a huge amount of money for the two guys -- linebacker Jonathan Vilma and defensive end Will Smith -- that still are playing for the Saints.

Vilma previously faced a full-season suspension and Smith initially was supposed to be suspended for four games.

Let’s start with Vilma, who opened the season on the physically unable to perform list, but has been paid all throughout the appeals process. Vilma got a $1 million signing bonus when he restructured his contract back in March. Tagliabue’s ruling also clears the way for Vilma to earn his full $1.6 million base salary this season. Vilma already received a $100,000 workout bonus and $600,000 roster bonus before the season ever started. Vilma’s contract also has a clause that could allow him to earn up to $2.2 million in not-likely-to-be-earned incentives that are tied to the number of games he’s been on the active roster and his playing time. We’re not sure of the details of the clause, but Vilma did miss the first five games of the season.

Smith also restructured his contract back in March and received a $6.175 million signing bonus. He now will get to make his full $825,000 base salary this season. Smith already received a $1 million roster bonus and a $150,000 workout bonus in the preseason.

NFL walks away from Saints fight

December, 11, 2012
12/11/12
2:40
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Jonathan VilmaDerick E. Hingle/US PresswireJonathan Vilma and other players implicated in the Saints bounty scandal have had their penalties overturned by Paul Tagliabue.
Let me get this straight.

Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue has found that current commissioner Roger Goodell was spot on in his finding of facts in the New Orleans Saints bounty saga? But Tagliabue has vacated all player discipline?

That’s more than a little contradictory. In fact, it’s ridiculous.

Tagliabue is agreeing with Goodell that the Saints ran a bounty program for three years, but Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Anthony Hargrove and Scott Fujita no longer are facing suspensions.

Heck, they probably won't even face fines, unless Goodell oversteps Tagliabue -- but I think Goodell is planning on staying in his own lane now.

“My affirmation of commissioner Goodell's findings could certainly justify the issuance of fines,’’ Tagliabue said in part of his statement. “However, this entire case has been contaminated by the coaches and others in the Saints' organization.’’

Sounds to me like Tagliabue and the NFL are taking the easy way out of this one. They’re pointing their fingers squarely at coach Sean Payton, former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, general manager Mickey Loomis and assistant head coach Joe Vitt.

There’s one huge difference between the coaches and general manager and the four players: The players are represented by the NFL Players Association, which challenged every step of the process, even though you could make a case that the union was siding with the best interest of four players over the safety of hundreds of others.

The NFLPA appealed every decision, and it ultimately won. Vilma doesn’t have to face a season-long suspension. Smith doesn’t have to miss eight games. Hargrove, who is currently out of the league, doesn’t face a seven-game suspension. Fujita, who might have suffered a career-ending injury this season, doesn’t face a one-game suspension.

The league still is saying the players did what the league alleged from the start, and Tagliabue’s statement reiterates that he found convincing evidence that there was a bounty on Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre in the NFC Championship Game of the 2009 season.

But the players aren’t getting suspended, they’re not losing paychecks and they’re not getting fined. They’re getting off pretty much free, except for whatever damage was done to their reputations by this whole sordid saga.

That damage was significant, and we might not have heard the last of it on that front. Vilma still has a defamation lawsuit against Goodell. If I’m Vilma, I’m not dropping that lawsuit.

Vilma has shown that you can take on what was supposed to be an almighty commissioner and win. It’s hard to win a defamation lawsuit because you have to prove intent to put out statements you knew were untrue, but Vilma is on a roll, so why not continue pursuing it?

Vilma’s attorney, Peter R. Ginsberg, already has said the defamation suit isn’t going away.

“We are obviously relieved and gratified that Jonathan no longer needs to worry about facing an unjustified suspension,’’ Ginsberg said in a statement. “On the other hand, commissioner Tagliabue's rationalization of commissioner Goodell's actions does nothing to rectify the harm done by the baseless allegations lodged against Jonathan. Jonathan has a right and every intention to pursue proving what really occurred and we look forward to returning to a public forum where the true facts can see the light of day.’’

Maybe Vilma can get the NFL to keep backtracking and say there was no bounty on Favre, because it sure looks like the league doesn’t want to fight anymore.

Apparently, the league’s approach now is to just blame it all on Loomis, who already has served an eight-game suspension, and Vitt, who already has served a six-game suspension. And put even more blame on Payton, who is serving a season-long suspension, and Williams, who is banned indefinitely.

Those four are the easy targets because they exhausted their appeals long ago. The only option they had was to appeal their decision to one judge. That was Goodell, back in the spring, and he upheld his own punishments and the clock on those suspensions started ticking.

But the hands of the clock on player punishments were tied up by constant appeals and Vilma’s lawsuit.

Makes you wonder whether Payton, Loomis, Vitt and Williams might have taken a different tack if they knew in the spring what they know now.

There’s no absolute vindication for anyone because Tagliabue and the league still are saying the Saints ran a bounty program.

But one group of the alleged culprits is walking away without any punishment, and the other already has served or is serving its punishment.

That’s because the players fought it and, in the end, Tagliabue grabbed the NFL by its shoulders and pulled the league out of the fight.

Video: Fujita alleges smear campaign

June, 18, 2012
6/18/12
5:03
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Scott Fujita says the NFL has embarked on a smear campaign and denies any involvement in Saints' bounty program.
Phil Williams, the agent for former New Orleans defensive tackle Anthony Hargrove (now with Green Bay) just gave us what is likely to be Hargrove’s case when his appeal of an eight-game suspension is heard by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on Monday. Williams sent out a lengthy letter to multiple media outlets, in which he basically says the NFL has no evidence of a bounty program and payments made to players.

It’s possible Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith and Scott Fujita, the other three players facing suspensions in the Saints’ bounty program could use similar arguments.

“Can you honestly say that the Saints employed a three-year “bounty program” if no one was ever paid for a "bounty"?’’ Williams wrote. “Would that not constitute one of the worst followed programs ever witnessed? Should there not have been dozens of rewards paid out, if in fact, “bounties for injuries” (which is what this was all about in the beginning, I think) paid out money? And why would your "independent" counsel be so highly paid for their counsel (by you) and also be so secretive? Again, if the facts are so obvious, why not allow someone truly impartial to make the final decision and therefore validate your judgments?’’

It’s Williams’ job to defend his client and he makes his points emphatically. Williams also said the league twisted what Hargrove said in a declaration.

Williams and Hargrove will get their chance to argue those points and more Monday. But this may be their last chance. Two arbitrators already have ruled against NFL Players Association grievances filed on behalf of the players. Goodell is the man who suspended Hargrove and the other players. He’ll also be the one to hear their appeals.

Unless there’s some stunning new development, I doubt Goodell suddenly is going to change his mind.
Unless the NFL Players Association has some sort of Hail-Mary pass hidden deep in its playbook, it’s starting to look like New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma will have to serve his season-long suspension and defensive end Will Smith will have to sit out the first four games.

A second arbitrator has ruled against a grievance by the NFLPA on behalf of Vilma, Smith and former Saints Anthony Hargrove and Scott Fujita. In the latest ruling, arbitrator Shyan Das ruled in favor of the NFL. The grievance said that the collective bargaining agreement signed last summer, prohibits commissioner Roger Goodell from punishing players for contact before the agreement was signed. But Das said Goodell had that authority.

That leaves only a few more ways for Smith and Vilma to avoid their suspensions, or have them reduced. Their appeals directly to Goodell are scheduled to be heard later in June. But, since Goodell is the one who issue the punishment, I doubt he’ll reverse himself. He upheld his rulings when Saints coaches and administrators appealed suspensions against the team.

The other wild card in this is Vilma’s defamation lawsuit against Goodell. Some legal experts have said they expect that case to be dismissed before ever reaching trial. But Vilma’s lawyer was involved in the StarCaps litigation that hung up suspensions for Smith and former New Orleans player Charles Grant and several former Minnesota players. The players eventually were suspended last season, but their case, which began in 2008, was stalled in the legal system for a long time as the NFL waited for final resolution.
Joe VittDerick E. Hingle/US PresswireWith Joe Vitt taking over for suspended coach Sean Payton, the Saints haven't lost their way.


METAIRIE, La. -- I’ve walked out to the practice field twice a day each of the past two days, looking for any signs that suggest the New Orleans Saints are a different team than they’ve been the last few years.

Other than a message for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell that can’t be printed here, I saw no signs.

The practices really looked no different than any of the others I’ve seen since starting this job in 2008. As always, the humidity was awful, but nothing else was. This team is talented.

It’s also run in a very organized manner. Yeah, I know coach Sean Payton is suspended for the season, but it’s not as though former Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris flew into town and handed the keys to the asylum to the inmates.

The Saints are being led through the offseason by assistant head coach Joe Vitt, who is the closest thing you’ll find to Payton. Vitt has been Payton’s right-hand man since the Saints began their modern era of prosperity in 2006.

“(Vitt is) not trying to fill coach Payton’s shoes,’’ safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "He’s just playing his role, and he’s doing a good job.’’

In other words, Vitt is trying to keep things as normal as possible in what might be the most bizarre offseason an NFL team ever has faced.

Payton’s not on the practice field as he pays the penalty for what the NFL says was a three-year bounty program run by the Saints. General manager Mickey Loomis is scheduled to begin an eight-game suspension at the start of the season. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma is supposed to be suspended for the entire season and defensive end Will Smith for the first four games. Vilma has been around the facility but isn’t taking part in team drills as he recovers from a knee injury. He’s appealing his suspension, as is Smith.

Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is gone (he left for St. Louis immediately after the season, then drew an indefinite suspension for his role in the bounty program). That might be making things a bit quieter on the practice field, because replacement Steve Spagnuolo isn’t nearly as boisterous as Williams. But you can still see talent and progress on the defensive side of the ball.

Oh, and there’s one other little item -- franchise quarterback Drew Brees hasn’t been around as he and the team try to work out a long-term contract. I’ll acknowledge that I probably saw more incompletions from Chase Daniel, Sean Canfield and Luke McCown than I’ve seen in all the times I’ve seen Brees practice. But there still were moments where you could see Payton’s offense shining through as big-time talents like tight end Jimmy Graham, Darren Sproles and Marques Colston made nice catches and big plays.

Not seeing Brees is a little weird. But does anyone really think the quarterback isn’t going to be with this team by training camp?

Negotiations might go down to the wire, but I’m certain a deal will get worked out. Once Brees is back, the Saints will be just fine.

That’s because, through all the controversy and drama, they’ve kept things the same.

[+] EnlargeSteve Spagnuolo
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertDefensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo might not be quite the presence of predecessor Gregg Williams, but the Saints are getting his message.
“What’s our other option?’’ Jenkins said. “It’s business as usual. We’ve got to accomplish a lot this time of year, no matter what, so that’s all we can do.’’

Spagnuolo is installing a new defense. Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael is fine-tuning that side of the ball, and there’s no doubt Payton left a few notes in his suggestion box before the start of his suspension. Even the special teams look like they’re going about things in the same way.

“They'd better be,’’ wide receiver Lance Moore said. “We’re not feeling sorry for ourselves or anybody else. We’re here and we still feel like we have a very good football team and we definitely can do some damage this year.’’

Jenkins and Moore are precisely right when they say it’s not even an option for the Saints to feel sorry for themselves.

There has been plenty of outside speculation that all the turmoil is going to cause the Saints to collapse completely. There’s no doubt every opponent on the schedule would like to help that process along.

The Saints won a Super Bowl after the 2009 season, and they followed that up with two more winning seasons and two more playoff appearances. Along the way, they haven’t made a lot of friends, but that’s the nature of what is an extremely competitive business.

There are those who want to see the Saints fall and there are others who want to see them standing firmly. Consider Curtis Lofton to be in the latter group. He spent the last four seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, probably New Orleans’ biggest rival. But Lofton signed with the Saints as a free agent and is expected to be their starting middle linebacker.

“We look at it now as everybody against us,’’ Lofton said. “Everybody wants to see us do bad. That’s just bringing us together as a unit. The Super Bowl is actually in New Orleans this season, so the goal for everyone is to go and win it for this team and this city. Let’s go get it.’’

The business-as-usual mantra is the best bet for the Saints to get where they want. With Vitt running the show, they’re operating a proven system. Brees will be back, and that means the offense can score enough points for the Saints to beat anyone.

But there’s another challenge on the horizon. Vitt also has to serve a six-game suspension, which kicks in just before the start of the regular season. All indications are that the Saints will then hand the head-coach role to offensive line coach Aaron Kromer, Carmichael or Spagnuolo.

Whichever one of those three takes over, it’s pretty clear how the Saints will proceed. They’ll continue doing things the same way they did with Vitt, which is exactly the same way they did things with Payton.

“I think it says a lot about these guys in the locker room and these coaches,’’ Lofton said. “They’ve been winning a lot of games around here and they have high standards. Everyone’s expectations are to live up to those standards and just keep everything rolling.’’

Just in case there’s any need for clarification, Lofton didn’t mean the Saints will be rolling over. He meant they’ll just keep rolling along.

Arbitrator rules against Saints

June, 4, 2012
6/04/12
12:44
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One of the shots at relief from the punishments of players in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal was ruled out Monday.

Arbitrator Stephen Burbank ruled that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had the authority to suspend Jonathan Vilma for the 2012 season and Will Smith for the first four games. The same goes for former Saints Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove, who are now with other teams. The NFL Players Association had filed a grievance, saying the collective agreement reached last August does not give Goodell the power to discipline players for on-field actions.

The NFL Players Association immediately issued a release saying it will appeal Bubank’s decision. The union said it believes players are entitled to neutral arbitration and will continue to fight for that principle.

The union also filed a grievance with another arbitrator, who has yet to rule on the matter. All four players also have appealed their suspensions to Goodell. The commissioner has said he will not hear the appeals until all the grievances are resolved. Vilma also has filed a defamation lawsuit against Goodell.

The bottom line is that situation still has a long way to go before being fully done. As long as the appeals are active, the players don’t have to begin their suspensions. Smith previously was involved in the StarCaps situation and that dragged on for several years before he finally had to serve a two-game suspension last year. If the appeals aren’t finalized by the start of the season, it’s possible Vilma and Smith could begin the season with the Saints. They have continued to work out at the team facility throughout the offseason.
The ledger the NFL reportedly has shows no proof that the New Orleans Saints placed bounties on opponents, the lawyer for Jonathan Vilma said Saturday.

Vilma
Peter Ginsberg used the words “misguided’’ and “irresponsible’’ to describe NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s handling of the bounty situation. Ginsberg said the person who kept the ledger was interviewed by the commissioner. Although terms like “whack’’ and “cart-offs’’ were used and Ginsberg called the language regrettable, he said the terms were meant to describe clean and legal plays.

I wouldn’t expect Ginsberg to say anything different. He’s representing Vilma, who has appealed his season-long suspension and has filed a defamation lawsuit against Goodell. Ginsberg’s job is to protect Vilma’s best interests and that’s what he’s doing.

But it’s pretty clear part of the strategy Ginsberg and Vilma are using is to put all the evidence it has on the table. If Vilma’s lawsuit makes it to trial, the NFL could be forced by the legal system to do just that.

More and more, though, I’m thinking that if the NFL really does have all the evidence it says it has, why not make at least some of it public? Vilma and Ginsberg aren’t the only ones calling for the NFL to produce evidence. There are tons of New Orleans fans screaming for the same thing.

Goodell already has angered a lot of New Orleans fans. It might be in his best interest (and the league’s best interest) to put some evidence out there to justify why the NFL punished the Saints so severely.
We hadn’t heard from filmmaker Sean Pamphilon, the man who released the infamous Gregg Williams audiotape to the media and added another controversial layer to the New Orleans Saints’ bounty program, in quite some time.

But that’s over. Pamphilon has spoken up again. On his personal website Pamphilon wrote a post that’s longer than some books I have read. He recounts his decision to go public with the audio and a lot of what he says is similar to what he’s said in the past. But there are some new twists.

Most significantly, he details how former New Orleans linebacker Scott Fujita, a member of the NFL Players Association’s executive committee and now a member of the Cleveland Browns, urged him to go public.

Pamphilon was given access to the Saints as he worked on a documentary on former New Orleans special-teams star Steve Gleason, who has been diagnosed with ALS. Gleason and his wife initially were opposed to the tape being released.

“They were emphatic Steve wasn’t willing to “burn that bridge," Pamphilon wrote.

Pamphilon said Fujita began acting as an intermediary to help convince the Gleasons to give their blessing on releasing the tapes. That never happened, and Pamphilon said his agreement with Gleason did not give the former player the right to veto the release of the tape. But Pamphilon said Fujita continued to encourage him to go public, at one point saying “sooner the better."

Pamphilon also said Fujita led him to believe that New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees also was in favor of releasing the tape. But Pamphilon got a phone message from Brees just as the tape was being released.

“In the voicemail, Brees never says NOT to release it,’’ Pamphilon wrote.

Pamphilon also said the NFLPA, including executive director DeMaurice Smith, was aware of the tape’s existence before it was released.

“At 3:12 in the afternoon Fujita texts me right after a conversation with DeMaurice Smith and says Smith 'brought up the release of the audio and his only question was if it will be released raw or edited?'" Pamphilon wrote.

Pampilon also wrote in great detail about the aftermath from the release of the tapes. Some of it was centered on people questioning his motives and his fractured relationship with Gleason. He also expresses disappointment in Brees. But the strongest part was reserved for Fujita, who no longer talks to Pamphilon.

Fujita recently met with the Cleveland media and denied any knowledge of a bounty program. When asked about the tape, Fujita said it was merely evidence of a coach saying some inappropriate things.

“In no way is this intended to be a cheap shot, but there is no chance in hell I would allow (Fujita) to teach either of my sons, an ethics class,’’ Pamphilon wrote.
In just a few minutes, another chapter in the New Orleans Saints’ bounty program will begin.

Special master Stephen Burbank is scheduled to hear a grievance filed by the NFL Players Association on behalf of four players that have drawn suspensions – New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma and defensive end Will Smith and former Saints Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove. Part of the reason the NFL suspended those players was because the league said they funded and received money as a part of the bounty program. The NFLPA is expected to argue that the financial aspect makes this a salary-cap issue and puts it under the jurisdiction of Burbank, instead of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

The NFLPA had a grievance heard by an arbitrator two weeks ago. In that grievance, the NFLPA argued that Goodell isn’t the proper authority to issue punishment for things that took place on the field. No ruling on that grievance has been announced.

Vilma also has filed a defamation lawsuit against Goodell. Although the grievances and the lawsuit are separate matters, they have a common thread. The players are attempting to get the authority out of Goodell’s hands and, in the case of Vilma’s lawsuit, trying to force the league to show evidence of the bounty program.

All four players also are appealing their suspensions to Goodell. The commissioner has said he’ll hear the appeals after rulings are made on the grievances.


Don’t look for quick rulings on the appeals of the suspensions of New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma and defensive end Will Smith.

Wrapping up an owners meeting in Atlanta, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said he will not rule on the appeals until after grievances filed by the NFL Players Association have been resolved. One grievance previously was heard by an arbitrator, but not ruling has been issued. Another grievance is scheduled to be heard by a system arbitrator May 30. Goodell also said he can foresee a release of evidence in the Saints’ bounty scandal after the appeals process is over.

Goodell declined comment on a defamation lawsuit filed by Vilma.

Goodell said he knows a lot of fans are unhappy with the suspensions he’s handed out to players, coaches and Saints general manager Mickey Loomis. Appeals for Loomis and the coaches already have been heard and their suspensions have been upheld. But Goodell said he’s looking forward to meeting with the players during the appeals process.

“That’s what the appeals process is for,’’ Goodell said. “You want to hear what the players have to say. When we get to the appeals, we’ll be able to talk about it and we’ll be able to hear from one another.’’
Welcome to Courtroom Football, the sequel. Following the 2011 version, “The Lockout,” we now have the 2012 version, “The Bounties.”

After NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s suspensions of Saints head coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis, which went (relatively) smoothly, Goodell’s player suspensions haven't been received quietly.

Goodell
Vilma
The NFLPA first filed two grievances -- one heard Wednesday, one to be heard May 30 -- advancing different legal theories to remove jurisdiction from Goodell. Now Jonathan Vilma has raised the stakes with a defamation lawsuit against Goodell. Seeking to clear his name and reputation -- and perhaps pick up monetary damages along the way -- Vilma has filed in his “home court” in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Louisiana, requesting a jury trial in front of likely Saints fans.

The suit advances two basic arguments:

Defamatory statements

The comments at issue are (1) a March 2 memo and March 21 release, both alleging that Vilma had offered $10,000 to any player who knocked Brett Favre out of the NFC Championship Game in 2010, and (2) a May 2 release alleging that Vilma assisted Gregg Williams in establishing and funding the bounty program, and that Vilma had personally placed a bounty on Kurt Warner and Favre.

Vilma argues, as he has tweeted publicly, that he neither established a bounty program nor contributed any funds to such an enterprise.

Vilma argues that Goodell’s statements are false and injurious to his professional and personal reputation, a reputation tarnished to the public, to NFL clubs and to future potential employers outside the NFL.

Need for evidence

Vilma argues that Goodell has not revealed any direct evidence demonstrating that the Saints' bounty program existed, relying on “at best, hearsay, circumstantial evidence and lies." This merges with the NFLPA’s repeated requests for more detailed and specific evidence.

With Goodell having negotiated -- through the collective bargaining agreement -- the continuing right to be the ultimate arbiter on player conduct, the NFLPA has no ability to go inside Goodell’s decision-making process. Now that Vilma has taken this out of the realm of the personal-conduct policy into court, the NFLPA hopes that -- through Vilma -- this will provide them with the evidence they have been requesting.

NFL response

Goodell’s lawyers -- and there is quite a roster of them -- will immediately try to have the case dismissed, arguing that Vilma's claims are “pre-empted, ” as disputes between players and the commissioner are expressly governed by the CBA.

In the event the case is not dismissed, Goodell will argue that Vilma, as a well-known NFL player, is a "public figure" and thus required to show "actual malice" and knowingly false statements by Goodell, a high standard of proof.

My sense is that the NFL’s concern here is less with the merits of the defamation suit and more with the discovery phase of the trial, if it gets to that point, in which Goodell would have to disclose sensitive information that he has been unwilling to share with the NFLPA or the public up to this point.

Where there is a lot of money at stake, and there is here, there will be lawyers and lawsuits. Welcome to the return of Courtroom Football. Stay tuned.

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