NEW ORLEANS (AP) – The NFL on Thursday provided a federal judge with what it says is evidence Commissioner Roger Goodell did not improperly pre-judge the four players suspended in the bounty investigation.
The evidence includes a copy of a letter the NFL Players Association sent the league on March 7 asking Goodell to delay punishment of players implicated in the bounty probe.
It also includes a sworn declaration from Goodell in which he states he was prepared to hand down player discipline at the same time he announced suspensions for coaches and executives on March 21. Goodell's declaration states he held off after verbally agreeing to do so in a phone conversation with union head DeMaurice Smith.
Attorneys for Jonathan Vilma, who has sued separately, and NFLPA lawyers representing the three other punished players have argued Goodell showed improper bias with comments he made before sending the players notice of their suspensions on May 2.
Attorneys for the players have been given until Friday to file their own evidence and briefs on the matter.
Vilma's consolidated lawsuits include a defamation claim against Goodell. Vilma's attorney, Peter Ginsberg, has argued Goodell made reckless and false statements about Vilma being the ringleader of a bounty program that offered cash for injuring targeted opponents.
Vilma has asked U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan to grant a temporary restraining order that would allow him to return to the Saints while his case proceeds, and the judge has said she would be inclined to rule in his favor, but will hold off until she is comfortable she has jurisdiction to do so.
Berrigan has indicated that she might prefer to see how separate proceedings called for in the league's collective bargaining agreement play out.
One item still pending is the NFLPA's appeal of system arbitrator Stephen Burbank's ruling that Goodell had the authority to serve as arbitrator on the bounty matter because of the commissioner's stance that the violations represented "conduct detrimental" to the league, as opposed to standard on-field violations, which would call for an arbitrator other than the commissioner.
A three-member appeal panel is expected to review Burbank's decision late this month, and if it rules in the players' favor, that could negate the need for further action in federal court.
In the meantime, the judge has urged all sides to try to settle the matter with the help of a federal magistrate.
Vilma has been suspended the entire season and he is currently barred from Saints headquarters, where he was hoping to rehabilitate from offseason knee surgery.
Saints defensive end Will Smith has been suspended for the first four regular season games and is currently participating in training camp.
Two former Saints who are still active also were suspended: Green Bay defensive end Anthony Hargrove was penalized eight games and Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita three games.
Goodell's discipline of non-players included a full-season suspension for Saints head coach Sean Payton, a half-season suspension for general manager Mickey Loomis and a six-game suspension for assistant head coach Joe Vitt. Former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has been suspended indefinitely.
Goodell also fined the Saints $500,000 and docked the club second-round draft picks in 2012 and 2013.
The NFL's initial bounty reports, made public in early March, described Saints players taking part in a bounty pool that lasted from 2009 through 2011. The reports also said the Saints specifically targeted several star players for injury, including quarterbacks Brett Favre and Kurt Warner in the 2009-10 playoffs.
However, during hearings for the players' lawsuits, seven current or former Saints, along with Vitt, have testified under oath that there was no pay-to-injure program.
They have said they only took part in a pay-for-performance pool that provided cash bonuses primarily in the hundreds for big plays such as sacks, forced fumbles and interceptions, and collected fines for missed assignments and penalties including unnecessary roughness.
They have also testified that violent sounding terms coaches used to track pool payments, such as "whacks, knockouts and cart-offs," were all for clean tackles.
Still, Goodell has seized upon the fact that player testimony indicated that "cart-offs," while legal, described hits that caused tackled players to take themselves out of games, at least briefly, to gather themselves or be checked by trainers. Goodell said during the weekend of Pro Football Hall of Fame inductions that players have essentially acknowledged the Saints' performance pool paid for injuries.