New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson met Tuesday with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in New York to discuss matters concerning both the team and the league.
The meeting came amid a backdrop of lawsuits filed by current and former Saints players who’ve challenged the findings of the NFL’s bounty investigation. Benson also has hired the firm of former FBI director Louis Freeh to investigate the accuracy of the league’s bounty probe.
It also came on a day after Louisiana state police announced investigators had found no evidence to back allegations made in an April news report that Superdome wiring was rigged so general manager Mickey Loomis could eavesdrop on opposing coaches’ radio communications between the 2002 and 2004 seasons.
While the NFL and the Saints provided very few details about the meeting, Saints spokesman Greg Bensel described it as productive and added that Benson ”looks forward to having many more discussions with the commissioner on specific Saints-related issues as well as league-wide issues.”
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the league generally does not discuss meetings with owners, adding that the commissioner meets with owners all the time to discuss wide-ranging matters.
Goodell has used the NFL’s findings as the basis for season-long suspensions of Saints head coach Sean Payton and defensive captain Jonathan Vilma, as well as a half-season suspension for general manager Mickey Loomis, a six-game suspension for assistant head coach Joe Vitt and a four-game suspension for defensive end Will Smith.
Two former Saints who are still active also were suspended: Green Bay defensive end Anthony Hargrove was docked eight games and Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita three games.
During a hearing last Friday on the NFL’s motion to dismiss lawsuits by Vilma and by the NFL Players Association on behalf of the other three suspended players, US District Judge Ginger Berrigan said she found the process by which the NFL disciplined the players to be unfair and the punishment excessive. She said she was inclined to rule in favor of Vilma’s request for a temporary restraining order allowing him to rejoin the Saints while the case proceeds, but she said she would need more time to seek clarity on whether she had jurisdiction to do so.
The judge then urged all sides to try to settle the matter with the help of a magistrate before the court has to rule.
The NFL’s initial bounty reports made public in March described Saints players taking part in a bounty pool that paid Saints defenders for injuring opponents from 2009 through 2011. The reports also said the Saints specifically targeted several star players for injury, including quarterbacks Brett Favre and Kurt Warner in the 2009-10 playoffs.
However, as the players’ lawsuits have played out in federal court, seven current or former Saints, along with Vitt, have testified under oath that there was no pay-to-injure program.
They have said they only took part in a pay-for-performance pool that provided cash bonuses primarily in the hundreds for big plays such as sacks, forced fumbles and interceptions, and collected fines for missed assignments and penalties including unnecessary roughness.
They have also testified that violent sounding terms coaches used to track pool payments, such as ”whacks, knockouts and cart-offs,” were all for clean tackles.
However, the players did testify that ”cart-offs,” while legal, described hits that caused tackled players to take themselves out of games, at least briefly, to gather themselves or be checked by trainers. Citing that testimony, Goodell said during the weekend of Pro Football Hall of Fame inductions that players have essentially acknowledged the Saints’ performance pool paid for injuries.
”When you reward players for injuring other opponents, that’s a bounty,” Goodell said.