July 5 (Bloomberg) -- The National Football League Players Association sued the league on behalf of three members who were suspended for allegedly participating in a bounty program that paid players for violent hits on opponents.
Scott Fujita, Anthony Hargrove and Will Smith, who played for the New Orleans Saints during the alleged bounty program, were suspended by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being accused of accepting payments from a Saints coach for injuring other players.
The union, in a filing today in federal court in New Orleans, denied any such bounty program existed. The association said Goodell, who issued the suspensions and on July 3 rejected the players’ appeals, was biased and it asked the court to overturn the bans.
“The investigation and arbitration process that the commissioner’s public relations machinery touted as ‘thorough and fair’ has, in reality, been a sham,” the association said.
The 32-team league in March said 22 to 27 Saints players had been involved in a plot over the course of three seasons to pay bonuses for hits that hurt opposing players, including Pro Bowl quarterbacks Brett Favre and Kurt Warner.
Hargrove, now with the Green Bay Packers, was suspended in May for the first eight games of the next NFL season. Smith got a four-game suspension, and Fujita, now with the Cleveland Browns, was suspended for three games.
The league also suspended linebacker Jonathan Vilma for the entire season. Vilma filed his own suit on June 30 in the same court, seeking a judge’s order compelling Goodell to rule on an appeal of his punishment. Vilma’s case was consolidated with an earlier defamation lawsuit he had brought against Goodell. The league today asked the court to dismiss the case.
“There is no basis for asking a federal court to put its judgment in place of the procedures agreed upon with the NFLPA in collective bargaining,” Greg Aiello, a league spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement today, commenting on the association’s lawsuit. “These procedures have been in place, and have served the game and players well, for many decades.”
In its filing, the association called the arbitration “legally invalid,” arguing that the players were deprived of a process that was “transparent, credible and fair.”
Goodell, the union said, made public statements about the players’ guilt before serving as an arbitrator in the hearing at which their culpability was to be determined.
The commissioner on July 3 issued an eight-page ruling, included with today’s NFLPA court submission, denying the players’ appeals of his punishments.
Saints coach Sean Payton was suspended for the year over the bounty allegations, while the team’s former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, now a member of the St. Louis Rams organization, was banned indefinitely for administering the program.
The union case is National Football League Players Association v. National Football League, 12-cv-1744; the Vilma case is Vilma v. National Football League, 12-cv-1718, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana (New Orleans).
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