NEW ORLEANS — The NFL Players Association filed a lawsuit against the NFL on behalf of three players suspended in connection with the bounty investigation, calling Commissioner Roger Goodell “incurably and evidently biased.”
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Will Smith, Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove on Thursday in federal court in New Orleans, highlighted a flurry of legal activity surrounding the punishment of four players for what the NFL says was their roles in a program that paid improper cash bonuses for hits that injured opponents.
Suspended Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who is suing separately in the same court, asked a judge to overturn his suspension while also requesting a temporary restraining order and injunction that would allow the linebacker to quickly return to work and keep working while his case is pending.
Goodell, meanwhile, filed a motion to dismiss defamation claims that Vilma made in his initial lawsuit against the commissioner in May. The motion, which was expected, states that Vilma is barred from making such claims by the dispute resolution process outlined in the NFL’s labor agreement, which also includes a provision barring lawsuits by players against the NFL.
But Vilma’s attorney, Peter Ginsburg, said the defamation claims focus “exclusively on statements Mr. Goodell has made publicly and outside the confines of the CBA.”
“Mr. Goodell cannot escape responsibility for those public statements based on an argument that statements in a different forum and in a different context might have avoided judicial scrutiny,” Ginsberg said in an email. “Having the title of ‘Commissioner’ does not provide Mr. Goodell with a license to make the accusations and allegations he has made against Jonathan in public forums without facing the same scrutiny as other citizens.”
The Saints linebacker, whose suspension is effective immediately, wants the injunction so he may resume rehabilitating his left knee injury at Saints headquarters.
Vilma is suspended for a season, Hargrove for eight games, Smith four and Fujita three. Vilma and Smith still play for New Orleans, while Hargrove is with Green Bay and Fujita with Cleveland.
The NFLPA lawsuit said Goodell violated the league’s labor agreement by showing he had pre-determined the guilt of players punished in the bounty probe before serving as the arbitrator for their June 18 appeal hearing. Two days ago, Goodell denied the players’ appeals, and now the NFLPA is asking a judge to set aside earlier arbitration rulings and order a new arbitrator to preside over the matter.
The NFL responded that the action is an “improper attempt to litigate” and said there is “no basis for asking a federal court to put its judgment in place of the procedures agreed upon with the NFLPA in collective bargaining.”
“These procedures have been in place, and have served the game and players well, for many decades,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in an email to The Associated Press.
The NFL has said it found that former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams ran a bounty program that paid improper cash bonuses for injuring opponents. Saints had coach Sean Payton has been suspended the entire 2012 season for failing to put a stop to it, while general manager Mickey Loomis has been suspended half a season and assistant head coach Joe Vitt six games.
Williams, now with St. Louis, is suspended indefinitely and, according to the NFL, cooperating with the investigation.
The players, however, have claimed they never sought or accepted rewards for injuring opponents. Fujita has said the NFL grossly mischaracterized what was an informal accountability program for teammates to reward one another for big plays such as sacks, forced fumbles and interceptions, something players on many teams have taken part in for years.
Several current Saints defensive players who have not been punished, including safety Roman Harper and linebacker Scott Shanle, have publicly defended their current and former teammates, denying that any Saints player sought to do anything more than what they were already paid to do — deliver clean hits as hard as they could.
Some players have also suggested that Goodell’s bounty punishments are part of an agenda to make the league look tough on player-safety matters in order to mitigate exposure to lawsuits filed by numerous retired NFL players who claim the league failed to educate them about or prepare them for many of the long-term physical ailments, including brain disease, that a pro football career can cause.
“A seminal question for this court is whether the NFL collective bargaining agreement … granted the commissioner, when serving as an arbitrator, the authority to disregard the essence of the parties’ agreement, to conduct proceedings that are fundamentally unfair, and to act with evident bias and without jurisdiction,” the lawsuit states. “The answer, under governing case law, is clearly ‘no.’
“The investigation and arbitration process that the Commissioner’s public relations machinery touted as ‘thorough and fair’ has, in reality, been a sham,” the lawsuit stated.
The lawsuit said the NFL violated the labor agreement by refusing to provide players with access to “critical documents or witnesses, or anything resembling the fairness mandated by the CBA and governing industrial due process law.”
The suit also states that Goodell “launched a public campaign defending the punishments he intended to arbitrate, rendering him incurably and evidently biased.”
The NFLPA also reiterated a claim that the CBA requires much of the “pay-for-performance” conduct outlined in the NFL’s bounty investigation to be handled by a system arbitrator and not the commissioner, who has “improperly usurped” control over that process.
The NFL has argued that the bounty matter falls under conduct detrimental to the league, which the commissioner has authority to punish. Two arbitration rulings so far have ruled in the NFL’s favor on that matter, but the NFLPA lawsuit says the NFL’s handling of the bounty matter amounts to a “rare case” in which the arbitrators’ previous rulings should be set aside.
The union contends one arbitrator, Stephen Burbank, based his ruling on a statement that he saw his jurisdiction covering only improper payments made to players, but not the payments the NFL has said players made into the bounty pool.
“This distinction cannot be justified by the CBA, nor can it override the fact that the NFLPA has never agreed to arbitrate these types of disputes before the Commissioner,” the lawsuit said.
Included with the 55-page lawsuit are 400 pages of exhibits, including about 200 pages of evidence that the NFL presented at the appeal hearing. The lawsuit notes that those documents represent a “sparse” sampling of the 18,000 documents totaling about 50,000 pages that the league said it compiled during its investigation.
One exhibit is a sworn declaration from Duke Naipohn, a fatigue risk management specialist who was working closely with the Saints defense throughout the 2011 season. Naipohn said he attended most defensive meetings and never saw bounties placed on opposing players or saw Saints players rewarded for injuring opponents.