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The NFL Players Association has filed a pair of grievances challenging the authority of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to suspend four players for their involvement in the New Orleans Saints' bounty program.
In the first, filed with arbitrator Shyam Das, the NFLPA argues that Goodell is prohibited from punishing players for any conduct prior to Aug. 4, when the current collective bargaining agreement took effect.
"In connection with entering into the 2011 CBA, the NFL released all players from conduct engaged in prior to the execution of the CBA, on August 4, 2011," the grievance says.
The section of the CBA cited by the union is a covenant not to sue -- an agreement in which the NFL and its teams pledged not to file lawsuits against the union and its members "with respect to conduct occurring prior to the execution of this Agreement."
But the league said that section of the CBA was not intended as an agreement to excuse player conduct that put player safety at risk, or conduct detrimental to the NFL.
The NFLPA further argues that even if that argument fails, the appeal of the player suspensions should be heard by Ted Cottrell and Art Shell, the hearing officers for on-field conduct violations, rather than by Goodell as an off-field conduct issue.
In the second grievance, the NFLPA argues that arbitrator Stephen Burbank, who serves as the "system arbitrator" for the league and its players' union, has the authority to rule on the players' conduct, rather than Goodell.
Burbank, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is the same person hearing a grievance brought by the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys over penalties assessed by the NFL for alleged violations of the league's salary cap.
According to the NFLPA grievance, the bounties, as non-disclosed payments to players, are a collective bargaining issue under the jurisdiction of the arbitrator and not Goodell.
In a statement, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the league expects the arbitrators will "reject the union's efforts to protect players from accountability for prohibited and dangerous conduct directed against other players," as well as uphold the disciplinary process which was set forth in collective bargaining last summer.
The NFLPA has requested expedited hearings for both, as they concern player suspensions.
Goodell announced the suspensions on Wednesday. The four current and former New Orleans players suspended -- linebacker Jonathan Vilma, for the entire 2012 season; defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, now with Green Bay, for eight games; defensive end Will Smith, for four games; and linebacker Scott Fujita, now with Cleveland and a member of the union's executive board, for three games -- were given three days to appeal.
Vilma and Smith already have said they plan to file. Vilma tweeted Friday: "NFL needs to publicly release evidence of players' bounty involvement if it exists."
An NFL investigation determined the Saints ran a bounty system from 2009 to 2011 that offered thousands of dollars to players for big hits that knocked opponents out of games. In March, Goodell suspended Saints head coach Sean Payton for all of next season without pay, suspended former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams indefinitely and levied other penalties against the club.
While the league said its investigation showed "a significant number of players participated" in the bounties by ponying up or collecting cash to fund them, "the players disciplined participated at a different and more significant level."
The union has disputed the strength of the evidence against the players, saying it has not received detailed or specific evidence of specific player involvement in the bounty program.
But Mary Jo White, a former U.S. attorney hired by the NFL to evaluate its investigation, said Thursday the evidence shows players received payments for hits on targeted opponents. She said the league's probe provided "an unusually strong record" and came from people with "firsthand knowledge and corroborated by documentation."
The NFLPA did not share information from its own investigation, and the union never recommended any discipline in the case, league sources told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.
Information from ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter and The Associated Press was used in this report.
1mEric D. Williams