By Brett Martel ,AP
NEW ORLEANS — The NFL denied the appeals of four players suspended in connection with the league’s bounty investigation of the New Orleans Saints.
In a ruling handed down on Tuesday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told Jonathan Vilma, Anthony Hargrove, Will Smith and Scott Fujita that each of them was still welcome to meet with him to give their side of the story, and that he reserved the right to reduce the suspensions should new information be brought forth.
Instead, 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 that Goodell 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 himself. 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 (NFLPA) also hinted at legal action on Tuesday.
The NFL says its investigation found that Saints players paid into a system, run by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams form 2009 to 2011, that offered improper cash payments to teammates who injured targeted opponents.
Vilma and Smith, who is suspended for four games, are still with the Saints. Hargrove, now with Green Bay, was suspended for eight games, while Fujita, who joined Cleveland in 2010, was suspended for three games. Only Vilma’s suspension is effective immediately, while the other three players are able to participate in training camp.
So far, the NFLPA already has challenged Goodell’s authority to hear player appeals before two system arbitrators, who both ruled in favor of Goodell, citing language in the league’s labor agreement that gives the commissioner that authority.
Now the union must try to convince a federal judge otherwise.
The NFL has said more than 20 current or former Saints players participated in the bounty program, but that Vilma, Smith and Fujita were punished because they were defensive leaders who contributed large amounts to a pool that paid for big plays as well as injury-causing hits. The league said Hargrove was punished for obstructing the investigation when first interviewed by investigators in 2010.