- Ed Werder, ESPN NFL Insider
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NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith sent a letter on Monday to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell that outlines the union's expectation for the process that should be followed in determining the ultimate fate of former and current New Orleans Saints players suspended for their alleged involvement in the bounty scandal.
The letter was in response to Friday's unanimous decision by a three-member appeals panel that requested clarification from Goodell and led to the reinstatement of Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove.
The letter, according to sources, contains several key elements: reaffirming the players' contention no pay-to-injure program existed, stressing players must have a full opportunity to present their cases and cross-examine evidence and witnesses, and expressing a continued willingness to engage in settlement negotiations as the courts have recommended.
The NFL also sent a letter to the union Monday stating its willingness to meet with any player who wants to submit information regarding the bounty scandal, according to a league source. The letter stated that players wishing to present further information on the issue should contact the NFL by the close of business Tuesday.
After watching the Redskins-Saints season opener from the private suite of Drew Brees, Smith offered his first in-depth perspective on the panel's decision in an interview with ESPN, expressing his belief that Goodell violated the collective bargaining agreement in punishing the players.
"It's great these players were vindicated and able to join their teammates on the sideline," Smith told ESPN. "But at the end of the day, my hope is that our players and fans understand that any time this kind of thing happens, it vindicates the importance of collective bargaining. It vindicates the importance of fairness and it certainly vindicates the notion that power is not absolute."
Smith reiterated his opinion there is no proof the players were involved in a pay-to-injure scheme but acknowledged that he was uncertain how temporary the reinstatements might prove to be.
"I don't know, and you know that I never guess," Smith said. "We believe the three-judge panel indicates that clearly there was a violation of the process. So it seems to me the premium now is on making sure the process is correct and fair.
"The players have been through a lot. During an offseason where at least some of our players get to shut it down mentally, they've been trying to clear their names and it isn't fair to them. It isn't fair."
The ruling vacated the original suspensions and enabled Will Smith to start at defensive end Sunday rather than serving the first game of a four-week suspension. Vilma, who had been suspended for the entire season, was unable to play because of offseason knee surgery and was placed on the PUP list Monday, led the Superdome crowd in a spirited pregame "Who Dat" chant and watched the game from the sideline.
But Friday's decision does not preclude Goodell from suspending the players again. He could come back and recommend the same suspensions, but would have to offer different justifications for his decision.
The ruling actually returned the issue to Goodell and asked him to review the penalties and clarify his decision. The panel said it could not be sure the players were not disciplined for salary-cap violations (receiving cash payments under the bounty program), in addition to being disciplined for attempting to injure opposing players.
Goodell has authority only to punish players seeking to injure opposing players. He does not have jurisdiction on salary-cap violations.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said Goodell would "make an expedited determination of the discipline imposed" for violating the league's bounty rule. Goodell is expected to reach another decision not in coming days, but coming weeks, making players eligible to play until then.
Smith was in Pittsburgh on Monday, beginning a series of meetings with players on all 32 teams. Each visit will include players voting on player representatives for the current season.
Smith said he has no sense of a time frame for a decision from Goodell.
"I haven't heard directly from Roger about any of this," he said. "I don't know what 'expeditious' reviewing of the record means. I do know what fairness and due process mean. First, it would mean the players have the opportunity to see the evidence in front of them. Second, at the very least, there isn't a person who wouldn't want the opportunity to confront the witnesses that league claims it has. Third, the players should be able to present whatever evidence they want to present. And, finally, they would want to do it in front of a person they believe and our fans believe is actually in a position to be fair.
"They chose to describe this as though a group of people somehow like a gang were all involved in a specific intent-to-injure other players. Our argument from the beginning was that in coming out and calling this a bounty and then at the end putting forth evidence that didn't demonstrate that these players were involved in an intent-to-injure not only sullied the names of the players but it actually violated the process the CBA envisioned."
The ruling had no impact on the suspensions of Saints coach Sean Payton, interim coach Joe Vitt and general manager Mickey Loomis. The coaches' suspensions stand because the NFL's power to discipline coaches is not governed by a collective bargaining agreement and the coaches, unlike the players, are not represented by a union.
At one point during the interview, a Saints fan recognized Smith and interrupted him, saying, "I appreciate you getting our players out there. I wish you could get our head coach out there."
Smith would not speculate as to how much longer the process might require but stated that is of secondary importance. He is far more concerned with achieving what he considers a just result.
"When have we ever -- even as a country -- championed speed over fairness?" he said. "We don't and it seems to me that this was an investigation the league, based on their own words, started years ago. Had we engaged in the right process, we'd be done with this now.
"Instead, we're in a place where it's yet another issue that to me takes away from the game that our fans and our players love. This is one more issue on top of concussions, on top of lawsuits brought by other players, on top of the appalling situation we have with the real referees being locked out."
Smith offered an explanation for all the disagreement and acrimony between the players' union and Goodell's league office.
"I think it's very hard for us and the players to accomplish what is best if one side has a winner-take-all mentality," he said. "I'm the kinder, gentler, compromise guy."
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