The NFL Players Association is prepared to defend all four players suspended by the NFL for their roles in the New Orleans Saints' "bounty" program, union sources said Wednesday, and all four are expected to appeal the penalties.
The four players punished are Jonathan Vilma, Anthony Hargrove, Will Smith and Scott Fujita. Vilma was suspended for the 2012 season, while Hargrove will miss eight games, Smith four games and Fujita three games.
In response to the league's decision, NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith issued this statement:
"After seeing the NFL's decision letters, the NFLPA has still not received any detailed or specific evidence from the league of these specific players' involvement in an alleged pay-to-injure program. We have made it clear that punishment without evidence is not fair. We have spoken with our players and their representatives and we will vigorously protect and pursue all options on their behalf."
Last month, union officials met with the NFL on a wide range of topics, and the discussion on the "bounty" situation didn't go particularly well. The NFLPA's contention is that the evidence it had been provided was insufficient.
After the meeting, Saints quarterback Drew Brees, an NFLPA executive committee member, said no progress was made on the issue and added that, "We didn't get any meaningful evidence, or any meaningful truth or facts."
The NFL disagrees with the notion that the evidence has been insufficient, and a league spokesman referred NFL Network to this portion of Wednesday's announcement when asked about it:
"The NFL Players Association received the confidential March 2 and March 21 reports on the Saints matter that were distributed to the clubs. In addition, members of the NFL staff, including the NFL Security investigators, met with NFLPA officials to review the results of their investigation.
A number of current and former players, including each player disciplined today, were offered the opportunity to be interviewed with counsel present. One player (Hargrove) submitted a written statement in which he did not dispute the existence of the program, but no player agreed to be interviewed in person. In addition, the NFLPA publicly stated that it conducted its own investigation into this matter, but it has shared no information from that investigation with the NFL.
"Commissioner (Roger) Goodell also has advised the NFLPA of the names of all other players shown by the NFL's investigation to have participated in the Saints' pay-for-performance/bounty program but were not disciplined. The commissioner again invited the union to provide recommendations on how best to promote fair play, player safety and the elimination of bounties from the game at all levels. He said that identifying the other participants may assist the union in its stated desire to advance those goals."
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