The National Football League asked a U.S. judge to reject a request by New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma and three other players to void their suspensions for alleged bounty-hunting of opponents.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on Oct. 9 reimposed a full-season ban on Vilma while meting out lesser punishments to the other players, each of whom was accused of participating in a plot to reward Saints teammates for deliberately hurting opposing players.
A panel of arbitrators had thrown out earlier suspensions, ruling the commissioner had overstepped his bounds. The players asked U.S. District Judge Helen G. Berrigan in New Orleans to reject the new sanctions two days ago, arguing Goodell is biased against them.
“Plaintiffs’ ‘evident bias’ arguments are an improper and misguided effort to alter the bargain that their union struck” in a collective bargaining agreement, the NFL said today in a court filing.
The NFL has said about two dozen Saints players, led by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, paid each other as much as $1,500 at a time from 2009 to 2011 for targeting opponents such as Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks Kurt Warner and Brett Favre.
Head Coach Sean Payton was barred for a year and Williams was suspended indefinitely.
Goodell initially suspended defensive ends Anthony Hargrove for eight games, Will Smith for four games and linebacker Scott Fujita for three games.
While the arbitration panel had said Goodell exceeded his authority in punishing players for taking money outside of their contracts, it ruled that the commissioner could punish the players for conduct detrimental to the game.
Fujita’s punishment was cut to a single-game ban and Hargrove’s from eight games to seven while Smith’s was unchanged. The players are also challenging those punishments through the arbitration process.
They are eligible to play while that arbitration appeal is pending. Vilma, who had been recovering from a knee injury this season, has said he plans to play in the Saints’ Oct. 21 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“The players seek only what the law requires,” the National Football League Players Association said in an Oct. 15 filing on behalf of Fujita, Smith and Hargrove, “an objectively unbiased arbitrator who can provide them with a fundamentally fair process and a bona fide opportunity to defend themselves against the Commissioner’s false charges.”
The NFL, in its filing with Berrigan today, said that under the collective bargaining agreement, an appeal to the commissioner is the “sole and exclusive remedy available” to a player or the players’ association when the commissioner suspends a player for conduct detrimental to the game.
The case is Vilma v. Goodell, 12-cv-1283, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana (New Orleans).