Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Goodell upholds bounty suspensions; players to fight rulings in court

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NEW ORLEANS -- NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has rejected the appeals of four players suspended in connection with the league's bounty investigation of the New Orleans Saints.

In a ruling handed down Tuesday, Goodell told Jonathan Vilma, Anthony Hargrove, Will Smith and Scott Fujita that each of them is still welcome to meet with him to give their side of the story, and that he reserves the right to reduce the suspensions should new information be brought forth.

However, the players intend to fight Goodell's rulings through the federal court system.

The players have declined to meet with Goodell because they have argued he lacked the jurisdiction to rule in the matter and has violated the spirit of the league's collective bargaining agreement by making public statements about the case that demonstrated he could not be a neutral arbitrator.

The players likely would have relinquished those legal arguments had they met with the commissioner to defend themselves through the NFL's regular disciplinary process.

Vilma, who was suspended for the entire 2012 season, has already filed two separate lawsuits in the matter in federal court in New Orleans. One is a defamation lawsuit against Goodell. The other, which named the NFL as a defendant, asks for a temporary injunction that would allow Vilma to continue working while other related legal matters play out.

The NFL Players Association also hinted at legal action on Tuesday, saying in a written statement it "will continue to pursue all options."

"The players are disappointed with the league's conduct during this process," the union's statement said. "We reiterate our concerns about the lack of fair due process, lack of integrity of the investigation and lack of the jurisdictional authority to impose discipline under the collective bargaining agreement.

"Moreover, the commissioner took actions during this process that rendered it impossible for him to be an impartial arbitrator."

The NFL says its investigation found that Saints players paid into a system, run by former defensive co-ordinator Gregg Williams from 2009 to 2011, that offered improper cash payments to teammates who injured targeted opponents.

Vilma and Smith, who is suspended four games, are still with the Saints. Hargrove, now with Green Bay, was suspended eight games, while Fujita, who joined Cleveland in 2010, was suspended three games. Only Vilma's suspension is effective immediately, while the other three players are able to participate in training camp.

Because Vilma is rehabilitating a left-knee injury at the Saints' training headquarters, he is seeking a quick ruling on his request in federal court for a temporary injunction.

Fujita, a member of the NFLPA's executive committee, said he was not surprised by Goodell's decision, but still hoped for "a process that leads to a fair resolution and gets whole truth on the table."

Fujita has called the bounty probe a "smear campaign," and all four punished players have denied paying teammates to injure opponents.

The NFLPA already has challenged Goodell's authority to hear player appeals before two system arbitrators, who both ruled in favour of Goodell, citing language in the league's labour agreement that gives the commissioner that authority.

Now the union must try to convince a federal judge otherwise.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 4, 2012 D3

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