NEW ORLEANS — NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has rejected the appeals of four players suspended in connection with the league’s bounty investigation of the New Orleans Saints.
In a ruling handed down on Tuesday, Goodell told Jonathan Vilma, Anthony Hargrove, Will Smith and Scott Fujita that he retains “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,” Goodell said. “You are each still welcome to do so.”
Vilma is suspended for the entire 2012 season, while Smith will miss four games. Hargrove, now with Green Bay, was suspended eight games, while Fujita, now with Cleveland, was suspended three games.
The NFL Players Association issued a statement saying it will continue to pursue all options.
“The players are disappointed with the League’s conduct during this process,” the statement said. “We reiterate our concerns about the lack of fair due process, lack of integrity of the investigation and lack of the jurisdictional authority to impose discipline under the collective bargaining agreement.
“Moreover, the Commissioner took actions during this process that rendered it impossible for him to be an impartial arbitrator.”
Goodell said he did not take his initial decision lightly and also points out that players did not help their cause by refusing to participate fully in the appeal process.
Vilma and his attorney, Peter Ginsberg, walked out of the hearing early after Ginsberg raised his objections to the NFL’s handling of the entire investigation. The other three players, who were represented by NFL Players Association attorneys, sat through the hearing to observe the NFL’s presentation of evidence, but in protest refused to present any evidence or witnesses of their own, and did not question the NFL investigators who were present at the hearing.
“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,” Goodell wrote in his appeal ruling. “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 collective bargaining agreement.
The NFL issued a report in March saying that league investigators determined the Saints ran a bounty program from 2009 to 2011 that offered improper cash payments for hits that injured targeted opponents.
The league has said former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams ran the program, and that general manager Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton failed to put a stop to it despite warnings from the NFL at the end of the 2009 season.
The NFL has suspended Williams indefinitely and Payton for the whole season. Loomis is suspended the first half of next season, while Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt was suspended for the first six games. Goodell also docked the Saints second-round draft picks this year and next and fined the club $500,000.
BREES GAINS UPPER HAND
NEW ORLEANS — Drew Brees gained additional leverage in his protracted contract talks with the Saints on Tuesday when an arbitrator in Philadelphia ruled in Brees’ favor in a dispute over how much the team would have to pay the star quarterback if they applied the franchise tag to him again in 2013.
The Saints have already used the tag on Brees for 2012, meaning he can’t negotiate with another team and could be forced to settle for a one-year, $16.3 million deal if he cannot reach a new long-term deal by a July 16 deadline specified in the league’s collective bargaining agreement.
System arbitrator Stephen Burbank’s ruling Tuesday said if New Orleans tries to tag Brees a second year in a row, he would be entitled to a 44 percent raise to about $23.5 million because it would be his third-career franchise tag. The NFL had argued Brees would be due a 20 percent raise because it would have been only his second franchise tag with one team.
Burbank, however, ruled that while the NFL’s CBA has some ambiguity on the matter, it is clear that the overarching purpose of the language regarding multiple franchise tags is meant to protect players from being denied their rights to free agency for an undue length of their careers.
“The arbitrator properly rejected the NFL’s strained interpretation of the CBA language, which ignored the fact that a franchise player designation is a narrow exception to the overall free agency structure,” the NFL Players Association said in a written statement after Burbank’s ruling. “This ruling will help all franchise players in the future. We are very happy that Drew Brees has clarification on this matter, and we hope that it facilitates a successful negotiation for Drew and the Saints.”
Brees has so far skipped the Saints’ offseason practices while holding out for a new long-term contract with New Orleans.
New Orleans designated Brees, 33, its franchise player in March after the club was unable to reach a new long-term extension with the record-setting quarterback before his previous six-year, $60 million contract expired.
During the past six seasons, Brees has not only led the Saints to their only Super Bowl title, but has completed more passes (2,488) for more yards (28,394) and more touchdowns (201) than any other quarterback in the NFL. His 67.8 percent completion rate spanning the past six seasons also tops the league.
In 2011, Brees set NFL single-season records with 468 completions, 5,476 yards passing and a completion percentage of 71.2. His prolific passing numbers helped the Saints set a new NFL high for total offensive yards in a season with 7,474.
He led the Saints to a 13-3 regular season record and second NFC South Division title in three seasons. New Orleans defeated Detroit in the first round of the playoffs before falling in the final seconds of their second-round game at San Francisco.
This offseason marks the first time Brees has had the opportunity to negotiate a major, long-term deal with the leverage provided by a string of injury-free seasons highlighted by a slew of individual and team statistical records, in addition to a championship.
He commanded only second-round money when he was drafted by San Diego, and the Chargers placed the one-year franchise tag on him when that deal ran out in 2005. The right-handed Brees then had an injury the following season that required major surgery to his throwing shoulder, and which left him with few major offers during the 2006 offseason.
He wound up signing the six-year deal in New Orleans that left him playing for well below what the top quarterbacks in the league earned during the past few seasons.
Brees is now expecting to be paid in the range of the league’s best quarterbacks, and Peyton Manning, who is three years older than Brees and sat out last season while recovering from neck surgery, recently signed a contract with Denver paying him $19.2 million a year.
A person familiar with the negotiations has told The Associated Press that the Saints have offered Brees more than $19 million a year. The person, who spoke on condition of anonymity because negotiations are ongoing, said Brees has sought a five-year deal with an annual average pay of under $21 million.
The NFL declined comment on Burbank’s finding or whether it intends to appeal, which the league could do. The Saints also did not return a message seeking comment.
If the Burbank’s ruling ultimately stands, Brees would have little reason to accept a proposed long-term contract from the Saints that did not guarantee him at least $20 million during the first two years.
Also, because Brees’ salary cap figure would be about $23.5 million under a 2013 franchise tag, the Saints will have more urgency to structure a new long term deal now that would give the club more flexibility under the salary cap in coming seasons.