Saints Players Took Many Missteps in Appeals Process and Paid the Price

Knox Bardeen@knoxbardeenNFC South Lead WriterJuly 3, 2012

Roger Goodell ruled against the appeals of the Saints players and upheld their suspensions Tuesday.
Roger Goodell ruled against the appeals of the Saints players and upheld their suspensions Tuesday.

National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell ruled Tuesday that none of the four disciplined players—Jonathan Vilma, Anthony Hargrove, Will Smith or Scott Fujita—would have their suspensions reduced.

Vilma will still miss the entire 2012 season with Hargrove suspended eight games. Smith and Fujita will still miss four and three games, respectively for their part in the New Orleans Saints’ pay-for-performance bounty program from 2009-2011.

In upholding his original ruling, Goodell not only took a hard-line stance with the players, but in a letter informing them of his appeals decision he laid out several missteps the players took during the appeals process.

Throughout this entire process, including your appeals, and despite repeated invitations and encouragement to do so, none of you has offered any evidence that would warrant reconsideration of your suspensions. Instead, you elected not to participate meaningfully in the appeal process… 

Goodell's initial salvo is a direct response to the players and their lawyers repeatedly berating the system that allowed the commissioner to swiftly hand out severe punishment in cases such as this. It also addressed—without saying the words—that Goodell was likely a bit miffed that the players chose to attack the system and Goodell’s integrity, instead of sitting down and offering ways to solve the disagreement.

Goodell continued in his letter:

Although you claimed to have been 'wrongfully accused with insufficient evidence,' your lawyers elected not to ask a single question of the principal investigators, both of whom were present at the hearing (as your lawyers had requested); you elected not to testify or to make any substantive statement, written or oral, in support of your appeal; you elected not to call a single witness to support your appeal; and you elected not to introduce a single exhibit addressing the merits of your appeal. Instead, your lawyers raised a series of jurisdictional and procedural objections that generally ignore the CBA, in particular its provisions governing 'conduct detrimental' determinations.

The players, with lawyers in tow, met with the league during the appeals process. Not only did the players not ask questions of any of the investigators, Vilma stormed out of the proceedings claiming that they were not fair.

"I don’t know how you’d get a fair process when you have a judge, jury and executioner," Vilma said after leaving the bounty hearings. "He’s [Goodell] made a ruling, he’s obviously going to stick by that ruling. And it’s hard to go into that process assuming it’s going to be fair. You have to assume that it’s not."

During this time, the lawyers for the players—and the players themselves—spent more time attacking the “unfair” proceedings than trying to put a shine on their tarnished images. The problem with that approach—other than the fact that it seems to have enraged Goodell—is that it was an inarguable point.

The power of the CBA gave Goodell the right to suspend these players under the 'conduct detrimental' clause and also gave him the power to oversee the hearing and appeals process. It was this CBA, that the players signed less than a year prior, that issued said authority to the commissioner. And even though players around the NFL just now seem to be realizing just how proceedings are held when the commissioner has these ultra powers, one team saw the writing on the wall last summer.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were against the CBA, according to a USA Today account of a Hines Ward radio interview.

"So Roger Goodell, even though a lot of players don't like having him in charge, the NFLPA, we signed off on the collective bargaining agreement," said Ward.

"And it should be noted that we were the only team who voted against it, and that was a major factor because of how we are fined on our team. In order to go to the appeal committee, we had to go right back to Roger Goddell. So that was one of the big things that we voted no against because we just felt like it was going to be unfair.

"But to the rest of the teams that did vote for the CBA, he's in charge, and those are the rules, and that's what you have to abide by because that's what you signed up for."

While two separate arbitrators ruled in favor of the commissioner in terms of his authority over the rulings and appeals process, and while the coaches and general manager of the Saints accepted their punishment and failed appeals process without controversy, the players fought.

Vilma filed two lawsuits against Goodell—one for defamation and the other for failing to rule on his appeal in a timely manner—in federal court. The players released statements vilifying the process that was potentially keeping them off the playing field for all or a portion of 2012, and many associated with the Saints from fellow teammates to past players called for the commissioner to produce evidence of players participating in a bounty program.

Instead of those fruitless gestures, what should have been happening was the players sitting with Goodell one-on-one and talking about the bounty program. That would have been the only way Goodell would have considered reducing or alleviating the suspensions. He even left the door open for that to happen in the future.

While this decision constitutes my final and binding determination under the CBA, I of course retain the inherent authority to reduce a suspension should facts be brought to my attention warranting the exercise of that discretion. The record confirms that each of you was given multiple chances to meet with me to present your side of the story. You are each still welcome to do so.

Instead of taking the commissioner up on his offer, the players are likely headed to court to try and use the legal system to get them back on the field.

That approach will likely fail, too.