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Legal action likely coming from players in Saints' 'bounty' case

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell upheld the "bounty"-related suspensions of four current and former New Orleans Saints players Tuesday -- to no one's surprise, especially since those players and their lawyers didn't defend themselves to the league throughout the process. Goodell left the door open to reduce the suspensions if more evidence is discovered or the players come forward, but the latter scenario seems as likely to happen as any of them inviting him to dinner.

Jonathan Vilma, whose season-long suspension began the second Goodell issued his ruling, already has started the process of suing to clear his name. Will Smith (suspended four games), Anthony Hargrove (eight games) and Scott Fujita (three games) likely will follow suit. They're also expected to file for an injunction to allow them to work while all these legal matter play out.

While Goodell said he could end up possibly reducing the punishments, it's all or nothing for the four players, according to people close to some of them. They want to be cleared of all wrongdoing because they believe their names and reputations have been tainted.

The NFL repeatedly has said its evidence and its investigation into the Saints' bounty program is stout. There is no way, as I see it, that the league will completely exonerate the players unless they present compelling evidence that they should be.

In other words, this will be played out in court -- maybe.

The NFL likely will say that since it adhered to all processes dictated by the collective bargaining agreement -- two arbitrators already have thwarted NFL Players Association grievances challenging Goodell's jurisdiction and authority -- nothing the players argue should ever see a courtroom.

The players' lawyers believe they're on good standing to stiff-arm that argument because they believe Goodell failed to follow protocol and that the league made missteps that opened up the door for challenges.

To the fan, the real issue is if the players will get to play while this saga continues to unfold. Vilma's replacement, Curtis Lofton, already is on the Saints' roster; if Vilma can't get on the field relatively quickly, his future with the Saints likely will be in doubt. Fujita, Smith and Hargrove also are well into their careers and could be replaced by their current teams sooner or later.

That's why the four are fighting so hard.

To the league, the players are culpable for the bounty program and need to be punished (although whether it should be called a "bounty program" or a "pay-for-performance program" is another point of contention). The players say the league unfairly and publicly accused them of being head-hunters. The league argues that it was simply presenting the facts surrounding a program that promised rewards to players for having opponents carted off the field.

The evidence shows there was some sort of program in which players pledged money to reward teammates for big plays and so-called "cart-offs." It doesn't, however, clearly show intent to injure. Technically, that doesn't matter much to the league.

The bickering over semantics, jurisdiction and legalities won't end anytime soon.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89

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