As lawyers for the four suspended current and former New Orleans Saints players await evidence from the NFL on Friday that will -- at the least -- outline the league's position heading into Monday's appeals hearings, the NFL Players Association sent a letter to the league Thursday claiming current, former or suspended team employees fear "retribution" from the NFL if they provide truthful testimony into the "bounty" scandal.
Those witnesses' fears could be alleviated should the NFL compel them to attend the appeal hearings and testify, according to a letter sent from the NFLPA's legal counsel to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who will hear the player appeals.
The NFL declined to comment Friday on the NFLPA's requests and its claim that witnesses feared retribution.
In a June 11 letter to Goodell, the NFLPA requested that Saints coach Sean Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis, assistant head coach Joe Vitt, former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (all have been suspended for various roles in the "bounty" program) appear and testify at the appeals hearing. Four others -- including two members of NFL security, Joe Hummel and Jeff Miller -- also were requested to attend and testify.
Most, if not all, of those requested by the NFLPA already have spoken with Goodell during the investigation that charges the Saints with running a "bounty" program from 2009 to 2011 in which players pledged money to others to injure opponents. League security tried to arrange interviews with players before discipline was handed down, but all refused.
Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma (2012 season), defensive end Will Smith (four games), and former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita (three games) and defensive end Anthony Hargrove (eight games) have all been suspended. They will appeal their cases to Goodell. They have lost two grievance hearings challenging Goodell's jurisdiction to rule on the bounty program. One of those rulings has been appealed.
A source involved with the players' side said that even after Monday's appeal, the legal maneuvering probably isn't over, meaning more suits could be filed in courts.
It's not yet clear if the NFL can compel or will even try to have those requested witnesses at Monday's appeal. The NFL is bound to provide players Friday with the plan it intends to employ at the appeals hearing.
The league isn't required to turn over all of its evidence, which the NFLPA asked for in its letter to the NFL on Thursday. Part of that evidence the NFLPA requested was a written declaration from Duke Naiphon, whom the NFLPA said spoke to the NFL during the investigation and provided evidence from several team and defensive meetings during the 2010 season. Multiple league sources have acknowledged the existence of financial documentation of pledges into a "bounty" program.
Players have denied being involved in a "bounty" program and have argued that the league has provided no evidence linking them to a pay-for-performance program in which they intentionally tried to injure opposing players. The NFL said it has significant evidence linking the players to the program and initially said 22 to 27 players were involved but narrowed those being punished to Vilma, Smith, Hargrove and Fujita because of their supposed leadership roles in the program.