NEW ORLEANS — Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma appealed his season-long suspension under the NFL’s bounty investigation, which named him as a ringleader of the cash-for-hits system.
In papers filed Monday, Vilma argued that Commissioner Roger Goodell should not hear the appeal and asked for a delay in the process until the jurisdictional issue has been settled through NFL Players Association grievances filed last week.
Vilma’s appeal also says the NFL has failed to present evidence linking him to a system in which players were paid to injure opponents. It asks the league to provide documentation, including witness statements and the names of those witnesses.
Vilma was one of four players given suspensions of various lengths as a result of the NFL’s bounty probe, along with Saints defensive end Will Smith (four games) and former Saints Anthony Hargrove (eight games) and Scott Fujita (three games).
The NFLPA sent the NFL a letter Monday reserving the other three players’ appeal rights until the question of who hears the cases has been sorted out. Hargrove now is with Green Bay and Fujita with Cleveland.
“I disagree wholeheartedly with the discipline imposed,” Fujita said in a statement emailed to The Associated Press. “I’ve yet to hear the specifics of any allegation against me, nor have I seen any evidence that supports what the NFL alleges.
“I look forward to the opportunity to confront what evidence they claim to have in the appropriate forum,” continued Fujita, a member of the NFLPA’s executive committee. “I have never contributed money to any so-called ‘bounty’ pool, and any statements to the contrary are false. To say I’m disappointed with the League would be a huge understatement.”
The players union grievances argue that Goodell is prohibited from punishing players for any aspect of the case occurring before the new collective bargaining agreement was signed last August. It argues that a CBA system arbitrator, and not Goodell, has the authority to decide player punishment under such circumstances, as well as rule on any appeals.
Vilma’s latest filing not only reiterates those arguments but also states that the NFL still has not provided “a single piece of evidence” to the Saints defensive captain to justify the suspension handed down to him last Wednesday.
“To be able to share, discuss and analyze the supposed evidence that has been gathered is a fundamental cornerstone of a fair and just process, and a vital prerequisite to uncovering the truth,” wrote Vilma’s attorney, Peter Ginsburg. “Indeed, the failure of the NFL to conduct itself in a just manner has compromised the process and resulted in erroneous and damaging conclusions.”
Vilma’s legal team now wants to see if the league has evidence that would show Vilma pledged, made or received bounty payments — items such as account ledgers of improper cash bonuses, payment slips or other documents.
Vilma also asks to review any video or audio evidence that the NFL has, including video from games or any statistical analysis of Vilma’s on-field performances.
Last week, former U.S. attorney Mary Jo White, who was hired by the NFL to evaluate its bounty investigation, said there was evidence from “multiple independent sources” that shows players received payments for hits on targeted opponents.
The NFL has said its investigation included 18,000 documents comprising nearly 50,000 pages.
White said the NFL has shared ample evidence with suspended players and the NFLPA, and she also said that concealing the identity of witnesses is important in terms of not only protecting those who help investigations but encouraging more to step forward in the future.
According to the league, Vilma offered $10,000 to any player who knocked then-Cardinals QB Warner out of a playoff game at the end of the 2009 season, and the same amount for knocking then-Vikings QB Favre out of that season’s NFC championship game. The Saints beat the Vikings and then defeated Indianapolis to win their only Super Bowl title.
The Saints already have been punished heavily in connection with the bounties probe.
Head coach Sean Payton has been suspended the entire 2012 season, while suspensions of eight games were handed down to general manager Mickey Loomis and six games to assistant head coach Joe Vitt. The club also was fined $500,000 and docked two second-round draft choices this year and next. Meanwhile, former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who admitted to running the bounty program from 2009-11, has been suspended indefinitely. Williams is currently with the St. Louis Rams.