The NFL announced this afternoon that Commissioner Roger Goodell has reaffirmed the suspension of Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Anthony Hargrove, and Scott Fujita for their roles in the New Orleans Saints' bounty program. Goodell's original ruling, and the subsequent suspensions of the players, had been vacated by a three-judge panel.
According to letters issued to each player and the teams involved, Goodell clarified that "his decision was based entirely on his finding that the bounty program represented conduct detrimental to the league and professional football." The CBA Appeals Panel had requested Goodell clarify why he had punished the players, trying to determine if it was for on the field issues, which falls under the Commissioners' office's jurisdiction, of if it was a salary cap issue, which falls under the CBA arbitrators to settle.
The NFL's press release states:
For decades, the commissioner of the NFL has been empowered, including in the Collective Bargaining Agreement with the players, to impose discipline on any individual employed by the NFL or its clubs that engages in specific conduct that he determines with due process to be conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the NFL. This responsibility was most recently affirmed in the 2011 CBA.
In his letter to Fujita, who say his suspension reduced from three games to one, Goodell wrote:
"While I have not found that you directly contributed to the bounty pool, there is no serious question that you were aware of the pool and its elements, including that it provided rewards for cart-offs. Indeed, Mr. [Jonathan] Vilma testified that Coach [Gregg] Williams brought the program to the team's defensive leaders before the 2009 season and that you supported and endorsed it. Your own comments confirm that players were encouraged to ‘crank up the John Deere tractor and cart those guys off' the playing field.
"I am surprised and disappointed by the fact that you, a former defensive captain and a passionate advocate for player safety, ignored such a program and permitted it to continue. You made clear to me that participation in the program was voluntary and that other players could have refused to participate, as you claim to have done. If you had spoken up, perhaps other players would have refused to participate and the consequences with which we are now dealing could have been avoided."
Hargrove, meanwhile, remains suspended for seven games. The league will credit him with five games served during his time as a free agent, and, whenever he signs with a franchise, he will serve the remaining two games. In suspending Hargrove, Goodell wrote:
"I find that you engaged in conduct detrimental by falsely denying, when questioned by an NFL Security representative, both the existence of the Saints' program and the pledge of a substantial payment to any member of the Saints' defensive unit who knocked Brett Favre out of the 2009 NFC Championship Game.
"My finding that you misled the NFL Security representative and obstructed the League's investigation is corroborated by your own Declaration and by numerous statements made by you in our meeting of September 18 that were themselves not credible."
Like Hargrove, Smith's suspension did not change. Smith will have to serve a four game suspension. Goodell's letter to Smith read:
"At our meeting in September, you confirmed that you expressed approval of the program when it was first presented to you by Coach Williams. You also confirmed that you provided money to the program pool both at the beginning of the season and again during the playoffs. I understand that you deny that anyone intended to inflict injury on any opposing player. Even in the face of repeated appeals to ‘crank up the John Deere tractor and cart the guy off,' you and others now claim that the objective was instead merely to ‘knock the wind out' of your opponents, requiring them to leave the game for only a play or two. From the standpoint of player safety, fair competition, and the integrity of the game, the issues with which I am concerned today, this kind of after-the-fact explanation is little more than wordplay that, in my judgment as Commissioner, offers no basis on which to excuse conduct that does not belong in professional football. Such behavior is conduct detrimental without regard to the precise extent or duration of the disability intended."
And, finally, Vilma's suspension continues to be for the entire 2012 season. He will be allowed to receive the first six game checks he will earn while listed on the "Physically Unable to Perform" list by the Saints.
"At our meeting, you confirmed that cart-offs and knockouts were part of a broader program in place among the Saints' defensive players. You confirmed that these terms referred to plays in which an opposing player has to leave the game for one or more plays. You confirmed that, as Coach Vitt testified, an opposing player's need for smelling salts under a trainer's care was a consequence of the kind that the program sought to achieve and for which players were offered cash rewards from the incentive pool.
"I also find that you engaged in conduct detrimental by offering a substantial financial incentive to any member of the defensive unit who knocked Brett Favre out of the Saints' 2009 NFC playoff game against the Vikings. (There is also credible evidence that you made a similar pledge regarding Kurt Warner in the immediately preceding playoff game against the Cardinals, but whether you made multiple pledges of that kind does not matter for purposes of the discipline that I have decided to impose.)
"Both Coach Williams and Mr. [Mike] Cerullo have submitted statements under oath attesting to the fact that you made such an offer at a pre-game meeting of the Saints' defensive unit. I have personally met with both men and have had an opportunity to assess their credibility. I am not persuaded by any suggestion that either Mr. Williams or Mr. Cerullo had an incentive to testify falsely, under penalty of perjury, about such conduct by you or by any other player. With respect to Coach Williams, you and he have repeatedly spoken highly of each other, and nobody has identified any reason why he would make false charges against the Saints or you in particular. In that respect, it is telling that even though he had already left the Saints and signed a contract to be the Defensive Coordinator for the Rams, Coach Williams continued to deny the existence of the program in its entirety, and acknowledged the program and his role in it only after detailed questioning by our investigators.
"Equally important, neither Mr. Williams nor Mr. Cerullo was made aware of the substance of the information provided by the other in the investigation; as one example, each independently volunteered to investigators that the bounty that you pledged with respect to Mr. Favre was in the specific amount of $10,000.
"Furthermore, Coach [Joe] Vitt recalled that players made a number of pledges at that particular meeting and that the meeting ‘got out of hand.' Mr. Fujita informed me that he believes that players made pledges of payments for ‘big plays' at that meeting. Those statements support the written declarations, made under penalty of perjury, by Coach Williams and Mr. Cerullo about the events of that evening. In contrast, your statement that nothing out of the ordinary happened and that no pledges were made by anyone at that meeting is inconsistent with the information provided by other players and is simply not persuasive.
"In addition, as you know, in early 2010 a Vikings player informed Coach Childress that a Saints player had told him that a bounty had been placed on Mr. Favre. There is also video evidence that a Saints player said; ‘Give me my money' immediately after Coach Vitt told the defensive unit (incorrectly) that Mr. Favre's leg had been broken and that he would not be returning to the game.
"I find, based on all of these facts and the entire record described above, that you did, in fact, pledge money to any teammate who injured or disabled Mr. Favre to an extent that he would not be able to continue playing in the playoff game. I recognize that you and some of your teammates have denied that you made such a pledge or claim not to recall your doing so, but I am persuaded, based on the entirety of the record before me, that you did so. And I find that such a pledge or any similar incentive is conduct detrimental."
All four players will be able to appeal the ruling within 72 hours, and will continue to play so long as it takes to determine the appeal ruling. The defamation lawsuit brought by Vilma against Goodell will also continue.