Amid reports that Commissioner Roger Goodell will be meeting with the four players whose bounty suspensions were vacated, it’s still not entirely clear what the meetings will entail.
As far as we can tell, Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, Saints defensive end Will Smith, Browns linebacker Scott Fujita, and free-agent defensive end Anthony Hargrove have agreed to attend what amounts to the pre-discipline meeting that Goodell routinely conducts before imposing discipline. The players previously declined to participate in a pre-discipline meeting, because the league had refused to share with them any information regarding the evidence against them.
On Wednesday, Commissioner Roger Goodell said the league had “offered several times to have [the players] come in as part of the hearing process, the CBA process, and I hope that they’ll do that soon.”
We’re still not 100 percent convinced the meetings will happen (the use of the word “hope” by Goodell suggests he isn’t, either), especially if the league continues to refuse to put its cards on the table. For now, the players could be agreeing to proceed with an eye toward Judge Helen Berrigan’s eventual reaction. Behind the reports and the sound bites and the analysis will be a trail of letters exchanged by the lawyers, and both sides surely are trying to craft a record of statements that will make them look more reasonable (and in turn make the other side seem less reasonable) when the time comes for the judge to decide who was — and wasn’t — reasonable and fair.
From the league’s perspective, a desire to meet with the players could be flowing not only from its hope to harvest enough evidence to justify the suspensions but also from a desire to reduce the suspensions. We (or at least I) have believed for months that Goodell went high with the initial suspensions with the intention of hearing the players out and reducing the penalties, in an effort to create the impression that, despite having full control over the process, he’s capable of changing his mind.
Either way, it’s important to understand the current posture of the case. The internal appeals panel didn’t overturn the suspensions or find that Goodell exceeded his authority. Ultimately, it was a technicality that sent the process back to square one. Moving forward, it could be as simple as re-writing the suspension letters to ensure that Goodell clearly stays in his lane of jurisdiction regarding conduct detrimental to the game.
Looking at the bigger picture, Friday’s decision actually could be characterized as a positive for the NFL. The league now has a chance to address any and all weaknesses in the process, making the eventual suspensions less likely to be overturned by Judge Berrigan.
That’s why the players should be leery. Absent a strong indication that the NFL will be producing more evidence or employing a process that gives the players a chance to challenge the evidence against them or otherwise doing things differently this time around, the players gain nothing from talking.