- Ed Werder, ESPN NFL Insider
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New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma and defensive end Will Smith will play Thursday night in Atlanta and then immediately travel to Washington D.C., to be in attendance when former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is questioned by their lawyers for the first time in an appeals hearing before former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
The NFLPA is providing the two Saints players with transportation aboard a private plane to make it possible for them to be present Friday morning at the hearing. The players had requested Tagliabue postpone the proceedings a few hours to accommodate them but he declined to change the schedule.
The Saints' only midweek game coincides with Tagliabue's hearing in which Williams and Mike Cerullo -- both former Saints assistants under Sean Payton -- have been ordered to testify and be cross-examined. They provided much of the evidence commissioner Roger Goodell used to levy historic punishments against the Saints. That included Vilma's season-long suspension and Smith's four-game ban. Both were reinstated by an NFL appeals panel ruling until their appeals are exhausted.
"The NFLPA did a tremendous job accommodating Will and I so we can be present for Gregg's testimony," Vilma said in a text message sent to ESPN. "Mary Joe (White) and the NFL have based their whole case on two people, so I look forward to hearing his testimony and helping Peter (Ginsberg) during cross-examination."
In addition to Vilma and Smith, former Saints players Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove were also suspended. Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis and interim head coach Joe Vitt also were handed lengthy suspensions, including Payton for the entire season.
"They're accusing us of things we didn't do," Smith said after Tuesday's practice. "That's part of the things that we wanted all along was to face our accusers."
Tagliabue indicated that he expects to rule shortly after the last hearing, which potentially could lead to Vilma and Smith having to serve their suspensions late in the regular season.
''There's always that possibility," Vilma said, but added, ''Once Gregg and Cerullo get on the stand and testify, we feel like there's no plausible way we could be suspended after that."
Ginsburg, who represents Vilma, and NFLPA lawyers representing the other players, failed in their attempt to convince Tagliabue to recuse himself based on his alleged conflict of interest. Tagliabue works for the same law firm that represents the NFL and is defending Goodell in a defamation suit filed by Vilma. The suit, which is before U.S. District Court Judge Ginger Berrigan in New Orleans, is pending.
The players and their lawyers also have previously called into question White's objectivity. White is leading the questioning even though the league introduced the former U.S. Attorney as the independent counsel who reviewed their evidence in the spring.
The Saints are 4-2 since Vilma rejoined the team.