NFL commissioner Roger Goodell reissued suspensions for the four players allegedly involved in the New Orleans Saints’ pay-for-performance bounty program from 2009 to 2011. In a league that’s defined by parity, Goodell’s ruling Tuesday shows anything but equal footing.
Just last month an appeals panel temporarily overturned Goodell’s original May decision to suspend Jonathan Vilma, Scott Fujita, Will Smith and Anthony Hargrove for their part in a Saints bounty program. But that injunction was short-lived, and even though Goodell altered the terms of their suspensions in some cases, his decision still remained firm and harsh.
Vilma and Smith—both still with the Saints—got little relief. Once Vilma comes off the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) List he’ll be suspended for the duration of the season. He will get to keep the salary that he earned while on the PUP list.
Smith’s suspension was not altered at all. He will begin a four-game suspension immediately.
Hargrove, who still is a free agent, had his suspension reduced from eight games to seven, while Fujita’s suspension was reduced from three to one game.
While the punished players remain the same, and the length of suspension similar, the league did send along reasoning behind its decision—a welcomed change from the May decision that revealed no evidential reasoning.
The Times-Picayune received a copy of the NFL’s release. Here are some of Goodell’s reasons the league gave to the players Tuesday:
While I have not found that you directly contributed to the bounty pool, there is no serious question that you were aware of the pool and its elements, including that it provided rewards for cart-offs…
I am surprised and disappointed by the fact that you, a former defensive captain and a passionate advocate for player safety, ignored such a program and permitted it to continue. You made clear to me that participation in the program was voluntary and that other players could have refused to participate, as you claim to have done. If you had spoken up, perhaps other players would have refused to participate and the consequences with which we are now dealing could have been avoided.
My finding that you misled the NFL Security representative and obstructed the League's investigation is corroborated by your own Declaration and by numerous statements made by you in our meeting of September 18 that were themselves not credible.
In response to a request for clarification from System Arbitrator Burbank, I previously advised you that the 'vast majority' of your discipline was based on your lack of candor to the League's investigators.
Accordingly, and based on the entire record before me, I find that you endorsed and agreed to, and contributed substantial sums toward, a program that incentivized, encouraged and paid players to cause cart-offs and knockouts, plays in which an opposing player is injured or disabled and unable to continue playing, whether temporarily (cart-off) or for the remainder of the game or longer (knockout).
At our meeting, you confirmed that cart-offs and knockouts were part of a broader program in place among the Saints' defensive players. You confirmed that these terms referred to plays in which an opposing player has to leave the game for one or more plays…
I also find that you engaged in conduct detrimental by offering a substantial financial incentive to any member of the defensive unit who knocked Brett Favre out of the Saints' 2009 NFC playoff game against the Vikings.
The evidence seems damning and substantial. But the players—and especially the NFLPA—aren’t going to slip away quietly.
The NFL Players Association issued this response:
For more than six months, the NFL has ignored the facts, abused the process outlined in our collective bargaining agreement and failed to produce evidence that the players intended to injure anyone, ever. The only evidence that exists is the league's gross violation of fair due process, transparency and impartiality during this process. Truth and fairness have been the casualties of the league's refusal to admit that it might have made a mistake. We will review this decision thoroughly and review all options to protect our players' rights with vigilance.
Which means we’re now almost back to where this fiasco began, except now we can see some of the evidence behind Goodell’s ruling. We can also see that Goodell made good on his promise to consider leniency on the players if they spoke with him and were open about their involvement.
But even though Goodell comes off much better this time around, the court system is likely going to become involved.
Lawyers for the NFLPA and the individual players will begin what will likely be another drawn-out legal battle to try and reverse Goodell’s newest ruling or temporarily halt it.
In this situation, only the lawyers are happy as billable hours on both sides accumulate. The players now have seen portions of the evidence against them, and so has the media. Goodell will likely be called out again as an overbearing monarch with too much unilateral power.
Neither side is going to look good. The lawyers, however, are still going to be paid.
Should the four players accept their suspensions or continue to fight?
What’s best for everyone involved—because it’s apparent that one way or another Goodell is going to punish these four players—is that these players accept their punishment and serve their suspension.
No more fighting. No more court battles.
If Smith had taken that advice in May he’d be back and available to play now. His four-game suspension would have been served, and the Saints would have been no worse off because they lost their first four games anyway.
Now, Smith has to start the suspension process over. This is terrible timing because not only did New Orleans just win its first game in Week 5, but the defensive line showed signs of life by getting after San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers in the second half.
Now all that momentum gained will be halted while Smith is replaced. The starting line is weakened as is the defensive line rotation—just when it was starting to come around.