Only one thing is clear in the wake of Tuesday’s re-issued bounty suspensions: It won’t be over until it’s over, and it still won’t be over for a long time.
Based on public statements we’ve received and private communications in which we’ve engaged over the past 15 hours, it’s clear that the four suspended players, Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, Saints defensive end Will Smith, Browns linebacker Scott Fujita, and free-agent defensive end Anthony Hargrove, will continue to fight.
And the fight likely will take two separate forms. Most immediately, the players will appeal the suspensions to Commissioner Roger Goodell. Presumably, the players will be more engaged in the process this time around, given that the players were more engaged in the pre-discipline process, choosing to meet with Goodell after previously refusing to sit down with him. (Then again, the players couldn’t be any less engaged in the appeal process before Goodell; they refused to speak at the first appeal hearing in June.)
Given that the league has relied so heavily on the sworn statements of former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and former Saints assistant Mike Cerullo, they’ll both most likely testify at the appeal hearing. And that will most likely result in brutally aggressive cross-examinations of both men by lawyers Peter Ginsberg (on behalf of Vilma) and Jeffrey Kessler (on behalf of the other three players).
After Goodell issues a ruling on the appeal of his ruling, the process undoubtedly will land back in federal court, where any still-suspended players will attack the NFL’s process as unfair and not impartial.
While that front in the bounty fight unfolds, it’s highly likely that the players will resort once again to the labor deal between the league and the NFLPA, arguing that the Commissioner once again has strayed from his lane of jurisdiction. Last time, the internal appeals panel created by the labor deal ruled that the Commissioner has no authority over salary cap violations, drawing the line “between agreeing to injure other players and the agreement to participate in an undisclosed compensation arrangement.”
The league’s statement regarding the re-issued discipline, as we expected, attempts to draw a distinction between offers and payment. “In my recent meetings with the players and their counsel, the players addressed the allegations and had an opportunity to tell their side of the story,” Goodell wrote to the suspended players. “In those meetings, the players confirmed many of the key facts disclosed in our investigation, most particularly that the program offered cash rewards for ‘cart-offs,’ that players were encouraged to ‘crank up the John Deere tractor’ and have their opponents carted off the field, and that rewards were offered and paid for plays that resulted in opposing players having to leave the field of play.” (Emphasis added.)
Obviously, the re-issued discipline doesn’t remove cash from the equation. The league apparently thinks focusing on “offers” steers clear of the jurisdiction the Commissioner doesn’t have. The players surely will disagree.
The ultimate question will be whether the appeals panel disagrees. If the appeals panel indeed disagrees, this will all get thrown back to Goodell once again. If that happens, the Commissioner’s only viable option could be to blame the players and the union for not taking responsibility for their actions, close the file, and move on.