The four players suspended for alleged involvement in the Saints' pay-for-performance scandal left their appeal hearing Monday on much the same terms as they'd arrived: believing the evidence against them was incongruous and incomplete, if not invisible.
"The NFL has been careless and irresponsible," linebacker Scott Fujita said, calling the league's approach to the players disagreeing with their punishment a "smear campaign."
Fujita, now with the Cleveland Browns, is fighting his three-game suspension -- as are Green Bay Packers defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove (eight games) and Saints defensive end Will Smith (four games), all of whom were members of the Saints during the time period defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was alleged to have run the bounty program -- and continues to question the strength of the NFL's case alleging players paid for big hits and injuries that forced opponents out of games.
The hearing began Monday morning as scheduled but an adjournment of three hours requested by Commissioner Roger Goodell reduced the players present by one. Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, suspended for the 2012 season, opted not to return to the New York offices, left before the end of the initial session, calling the hearing "a sham" because the NFL didn't put forth the thousands of pages of evidence it claimed to have collected.
Vilma and his attorney, Peter Ginsberg, left and did not return. Vilma faces a one-year suspension for allegedly offering teammates $10,000 to knock out specific opposing quarterbacks.
"We had two fundamental issues that have come to the forefront today," Ginsberg said. "One is a question about how we ended up in a place, at a proceeding, where the commissioner has so unilaterally and in such a draconian fashion believes that he can take over control of a proceeding like this. Putting aside how we got here, even with regard to the few fundamental rules that should govern these proceedings he cannot abide by them. For an example, the commissioner was obligated to produce the documents to us within 72 hours before the proceeding. The NFL didn't produce any of their documents 72 hours before the proceedings.
"When you look at those documents it's clear the commissioner has withheld from us thousands of pages that he gathered during the course of his supposed investigation. He was also unwilling to present any witnesses to us. So we got upstairs (Monday) and the commissioner has tried to regroup by adjourning today's hearing after we presented our position with regard to the process and with regard to the merits. We're not willing to participate in that kind of sham. The commissioner had legal obligations, procedural obligations. He failed in those obligations and as far as we're concerned these proceedings are over."
An NFLPA motion filed Monday to delay the resumption of the appeals hearing for three players suspended for alleged involvement in the Saints' bounty program was denied by the NFL; Goodell restarted the hearing at 2:40 p.m. ET.
Goodell began the hearing at which Vilma, Hargrove, Smith and Fujita were to be shown the evidence collected by the NFL proving their involvement in the scandal and justifying the personal-conduct policy suspensions. Within an hour of the 11 a.m. meeting beginning, the NFL pushed back the appeal hearing because the players hadn't been allowed the full 72 hours to review evidence required by the collective bargaining agreement.
Goodell requested the session reconvene at 1:45 p.m. ET, and it began almost on time following the NFLPA motion to delay the session to have evidence reviewed until Thursday.
Vilma knew in walking away he was likely forfeiting his appeal.
"Roger Goodell has taken three months to tarnish what I've built over eight years of my career," Vilma told Newsday on Monday.
The NFL handed over select evidence Friday, adhering to the required three days notice of evidence before Monday's appeal. But the letter of the rule is interpreted by the players as 72 hours before any hearing, and evidence wasn't turned over until Friday night by the NFL.
Vilma, talking to reporters leaving NFL offices, said he doubts he can get a fair hearing in the matter, calling Goodell "judge, jury and executioner."
It is not known what additional evidence linked Vilma to the bounty scandal. He was suspended for the 2012 season and the three other players suspended, Hargrove, Smith and Fujita, left the appeal hearing about 15 minutes after Vilma and Ginsberg.
A total of 16 exhibits were entered as evidence against the players, including email messages and handwritten notes detailing bounty amounts. One item titled "QB out pool," listed interim head coach Joe Vitt as a $5,000 contributor, as well as Vilma.
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