NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has rejected the appeals of four players suspended in connection with the league's investigation of the New Orleans Saints' "bounty" program.
In a ruling handed down Tuesday, Goodell told Jonathan Vilma, Anthony Hargrove, Will Smith and Scott Fujita that each of them is still welcome to meet with him to give their side of the story and that he reserves the right to reduce the suspensions should new information be brought forth.
The players have declined to meet with Goodell because they have argued that he lacks the jurisdiction to rule in the matter and has violated the spirit of the NFL's collective bargaining agreement by making public statements about the case that demonstrated he could not be a neutral arbitrator.
Goodell cited the players' silence in explaining why he upheld the suspensions.
"Throughout this entire process, including your appeals, and despite repeated invitations and encouragement to do so, none of you has offered any evidence that would warrant reconsideration of your suspensions," Goodell wrote in a letter sent to the players. "Instead, you elected not to participate meaningfully in the appeal process ..."
Vilma, who was suspended for the entire 2012 season, already has filed two separate lawsuits in the matter in federal court in New Orleans. One is a defamation lawsuit against Goodell himself. The other, which named the NFL as a defendant, asks for a temporary injunction that would allow Vilma to continue working while other related legal matters play out.
According to Gabe Feldman, director of the sports law program at Tulane University, a judge consolidated Vilma's lawsuits Tuesday.
The NFL Players Association also hinted at legal action Tuesday, saying in a written statement that it "will continue to pursue all options."
"The players are disappointed with the league's conduct during this process," the union's 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."
The NFL says its investigation found that Saints players paid into a system, run by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams from 2009 to 2011, that offered improper cash payments to teammates who injured targeted opponents.
Vilma, who is suspended for the season, and Smith, who is suspended four games, are still with the Saints. Hargrove, now with the Green Bay Packers, was suspended eight games, while Fujita, who joined the Cleveland Browns in 2010, was suspended three games. Only Vilma's suspension is effective immediately, while the other three players are able to participate in training camp.
Fujita, a member of the NFLPA's executive committee, said he wasn't surprised by Goodell's decision, but he still hopes for "a process that leads to a fair resolution and gets whole truth on the table."
Fujita has called the bounty probe a "smear campaign," and all four punished players have denied paying teammates to injure opponents.
Goodell said he didn't take his initial decision lightly.
"I determined the discipline for each of you (1) only after a long, detailed and professional investigation by NFL Security's experienced investigators; (2) only after the results of that investigation were carefully reviewed by an independent expert, former United States Attorney Mary Jo White;(3) only after I heard the appeals of the Saints' coaches and staff regarding discipline for their roles in the program;(4) only after representatives of NFL Security, along with Mr. (Jeff) Pash and Mr. (Adolpho) Birch, spoke with Players Association attorneys at length regarding the investigation; and (5) only after giving each of you multiple opportunities to meet with the NFL investigators and to share with them your version of the events surrounding the program," Goodell wrote. "The suspensions imposed were reasonable action taken to preserve public confidence in, and the integrity of, the game of professional football."
Vilma and his attorney, Peter Ginsberg, walked out of a June 16 appeal hearing early after Ginsberg raised his objections to the NFL's handling of the entire investigation. The other three players, who were represented by NFLPA attorneys, sat through the hearing to observe the NFL's presentation of evidence, but they refused to present any evidence or witnesses of their own, and did not question the NFL investigators who were present at the hearing.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.