The National Football League players union says Commissioner Roger Goodell lacks the authority to suspend four players for participating in the New Orleans Saints’ 2009-11 bounty program.
The NFL Players Association filed a grievance with arbitrator Stephen Burbank, arguing that Goodell is barred from disciplining players for any non-contract bonuses that took place before the league’s new collective bargaining agreement with players was signed in August 2011. Responsibility for player punishment, and any appeal, in this case belongs to the arbitrator instead of Goodell, according to the complaint.
Goodell earlier this week suspended Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma without pay for the 2012 season; defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, now with the Green Bay Packers, for eight games; defensive end Will Smith for four games and linebacker Scott Fujita, now with the Cleveland Browns, for three games.
“The CBA expressly bars the NFL commissioner from imposing penalties against players for alleged undisclosed payments such as the Saints’ claimed ‘pay-for-performance/bounty’ system,” the union said in the complaint filed May 3.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said yesterday in an e-mail that none of the players has filed an appeal, which must be done by May 7.
“We expect that the arbitrators will 1) reject the union’s efforts to protect players from accountability for prohibited and dangerous conduct directed against other players and 2) uphold the disciplinary process that was so carefully negotiated in the Collective Bargaining Agreement less than a year ago,” Aiello said in the e-mail.
In a letter to the league, the union said Goodell had no authority to punish the players for previous conduct.
“Even assuming for the sake of argument that the commissioner had the authority to punish players for conduct detrimental under the alleged facts and circumstances of this particular situation -- he does not -- he nevertheless would be prohibited from punishing NFL players for any aspect of the alleged ‘pay-for-performance/bounty’ conduct occurring before Aug. 4, 2011,” the union said in its letter.
Burbank, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania law school, should “ultimately determine whether and to what extent the players should be punished,” the union letter said.
The NFL last month handed down the stiffest punishment ever imposed on a team and its leadership for the bounty program. Saints coach Sean Payton was suspended for an entire season, General Manager Mickey Loomis was given a half-season suspension, assistant coach Joe Vitt received a six-game ban and the franchise was stripped of two draft picks and fined $500,000.
Former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, now with the St. Louis Rams, was suspended indefinitely for administering the program.
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