The NFL “reaffirmed” discipline on the alleged bounty players on Tuesday, but adjusted certain aspects of the penalties.
Browns linebacker Scott Fujita had his suspension significantly reduced from three games to one.
Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma’s suspension remains the same — he is suspended for the season — but he will retain his salary for the five weeks he spent on the PUP list and will receive another game check in Week 6.
The NFL Players Association reacted swifly.
“For more than six months, the NFL has ignored the facts, abused the process outlined in our collective bargaining agreement and failed to produce evidence that the players intended to injure anyone, ever. The only evidence that exists is the League’s gross violation of fair due process, transparency and impartiality during this process. Truth and fairness have been the casualties of the league’s refusal to admit that it might have made a mistake,” the NFLPA said in a statement following the commissioner’s discipline.
“We will review this decision thoroughly and review all options to protect our players’ rights with vigilance.”
After an internal appeals panel vacated the suspensions of Vilma, Fujita, Saints defensive end Will Smith and free-agent defensive end Anthony Hargrove in early September, the league made it clear that the decision was based on conduct detrimental to football. Each of the players has the right to appeal the ruling to league commissioner Roger Goodell.
Since the players were willing to meet with Goodell during the period the suspensions were lifted, they may be more willing to participate in the appeals process this time around.
Smith will be suspended four games and Hargrove will be suspended seven games, reduced from eight games, but is credited with missing the first five because he is a free agent.
Despite Goodell's new rulings, the seven-month old bounty saga is not over.
Vilma offered a response on Twitter, that read, in part, ''this is not news to me pride won't let him admit he's wrong.'' Smith issued a statement saying he will continue to explore his appeal options.
The players were implicated in what the NFL said was a bounty pool run by former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and paid improper cash bonuses for hits that injured opponents. The players have acknowledged a pool but denied they intended to injure anyone.
The players can delay their suspensions by appealing again through their labor contract, which they have three days to do. They could also ask a federal judge in New Orleans to revisit their earlier request for an injunction blocking the suspensions.
Still, Goodell upheld parts, or all of the players' suspensions.
''The quality, specificity and scope of the evidence supporting the findings of conduct detrimental (to the game) are far greater and more extensive than ordinarily available in such cases,'' Goodell said in a memorandum to the 32 clubs.
Goodell's new ruling comes about a month after an appeal panel vacated the original suspensions on technical grounds during Week 1 of the regular season. The panel did not address the merits of the league's investigation. It merely asked Goodell to clarify to extent to which his ruling involved conduct detrimental to the league, which he has the sole authority to handle, and salary cap violations resulting from bonus payments, which would have to be ruled upon by an arbitrator other than the commissioner.
''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. ''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.''
Only Smith and Fujita have played this season. Vilma has been recovering from offseason knee surgery and hopes to return in two weeks when the Saints play at Tampa Bay.
Smith issued a statement after the new rulings were announced.
''I remain frustrated with the continued unilateral rulings by this commissioner as he continues to disregard the facts and assault my character,'' Smith said in the statement. ''Let me be clear- I never participated in a `pay-to-injure program,' never took the field with intent to injure another player, and never contributed any money to hurt other players. It was my hope that those investigating would put their arrogance and agenda aside in order to comprehend the difference between a `pay-for-performance program' and a `pay-to-injure program,' but until that day, I will continue to pursue my appeal options through the NFLPA, and attempt to return to work for my family, teammates, fans and the city of New Orleans.''
Goodell began to reconsider his disciplinary actions after the Sept. 7 appeal panel ruling and this time all four players agreed to meet with him. During those meetings the NFL produced sworn declarations by Williams and another former defensive assistant, Mike Cerullo, in which they stated that they observed Vilma offering what they believed were $10,000 rewards for knocking then-Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner and then-Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre out of 2009-10 playoff games.
Vilma's attorney, Peter Ginsberg, did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the ruling, though Vilma has indicated he would be inclined to continue to fight his punishment in federal court. U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan has stated that she found the NFL's disciplinary process unfair and that she would be inclined to rule grant Vilma at least a temporary restraining order if she believed she had jurisdiction on the matter.
However, Berrigan also has stated that she is hesitant to rule until she is certain the players have exhausted all possibile remedies available to them through the NFL's collective bargaining agreement.
The other three players have been represented by the NFLPA, which stated it will carefully review Goodell's latest decision and ''protect our players' rights with vigilance,'' but did not disclose any immediate plans to take the matter back to court.