The latest round of appeal hearings in the NFL's bounty investigation concluded Monday evening following witness appearances by former Minnesota Vikings head coach Brad Childress, Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt and linebacker Jonathan Vilma.
Now Vilma, Saints defensive end Will Smith and two other players await a ruling by former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue on whether player suspensions should be reduced. If they don't like how that turns out, they could still get relief from a federal judge in New Orleans who has been presiding over lawsuits challenging the way the league has handled the probe and resulting discipline.
Vilma sounded hopeful that Tagliabue, who has been appointed to oversee the players' latest appeals to the NFL, would bring the process to a fair resolution.
"I think it did go well," Vilma, wearing a grey suit, said as he left a downtown high-rise where Monday's hearing was held. Vilma added that Tagliabue "seems a little bit more receptive" to his version of events than Commissioner Roger Goodell did. The linebacker declined further comment, citing Tagliabue's directive that the parties involved keep details of the hearings confidential.
There were also several days of witness appearances in Washington, D.C., last week.
The hearings were scheduled to conclude in New Orleans by Tuesday, but ended Monday evening after about 10 hours of testimony from the three witnesses.
Tagliabue had informed attorneys representing all parties that he hoped to rule on the four players' appeals shortly after the hearings conclusion.
A person familiar with the situation said Tagliabue expects to rule by early next week, meaning Vilma and Smith expect to play Sunday against the New York Giants. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of Tagliabue's directive.
Smith, suspended four games, and Vilma, suspended for the entire current season, are permitted to play while their appeals are pending.
Like Vilma, Childress and Vitt honoured the Tagliabue's request for confidentiality after their appearances.
As Childress left the downtown law office on Monday he said he had "nothing to add."
Vitt also didn't have much to say, though he spent about five hours at the hearing.
The Saints coach had said previously, including under oath in federal court last summer, that his players never took the field intending to injure an opponent. As he left, Vitt said that testimony "was reiterated."
While Vitt said he could not discuss details of the hearing, he said it was good to see the former commissioner, who he'd met before. Vitt said that they had friendly exchanges, even sharing some old stories.
Vitt then headed back to the Saints' suburban headquarters to catch up on how practice went.
Two former New Orleans players also were banned: Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita, now on injured reserve, had his initial three-game suspension reduced to one game. Free-agent defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove has not played in the NFL this season but faces a two-game suspension if he signs with a team.
The NFL has described Vilma and Smith as ringleaders — and former Saints defensive co-ordinator Gregg Williams as being in charge — of a performance pool designed to knock targeted opponents out of games from 2009 to 2011.
The league has sworn statements from Williams and former Saints assistant coach Mike Cerullo — who both testified last week — saying Vilma offered $10,000 US to anyone who knocked quarterback Brett Favre out of the 2010 NFC championship game.
Childress had informed the NFL after that game he'd heard from former player Jimmy Kennedy that the Saints had a bounty on Favre. Childress is currently the Cleveland Browns' offensive co-ordinator.
The NFL also has identified Kennedy as one of its witnesses, but Kennedy has said the league is lying about his statements. He added that the league irreparably damaged his reputation by its "shoddy, careless, shameful so-called investigation."
According to the NFL, Kennedy heard about the bounty from Hargrove, who has also denied knowledge of a bounty program.
Behind closed doors
Because of Tagliabue's insistence that the contents of the appeals process remain private, all of the hearings have been behind closed doors in private law offices.
Goodell issued the initial suspensions, which also included a full-season ban for Saints head coach Sean Payton.
Lawsuits brought by Vilma and the NFL Players Association to challenge Goodell's handling of the case, including his decision in October to appoint Tagliabue as the arbitrator for the appeals, are pending in federal court in New Orleans.
Last Thursday, U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan gave the parties until Monday to answer questions about whether the NFL's collective bargaining agreement prevents a commissioner from handing out discipline for legal contact, and whether the CBA's passages about detrimental conduct are "ambiguous, hence unenforceable."
Players and coaches testified in court that the Saints defence's performance pool rewarded only legal hits, and the judge said she was inclined to presume that testimony was accurate because it went unchallenged in court by the league.
Responding to the judge's request in a brief filed Monday around noon, the NFL Players Association argued the league's labour agreement does not give the commissioner authority to punish players for legal hits. The union added that if Tagliabue interprets the agreement otherwise, the provisions pertaining to the commissioner's authority in the CBA would be so vague as to be unenforceable.
In its response, the NFL said players were not punished for on-field actions. The league said the players' suspensions resulted from meeting or locker room pledges, rewarding injury-causing hits and lying to NFL investigators about the incentive pool.
In March, the NFL announced that its investigation showed the Saints put together a bounty pool of up to $50,000 to reward game-ending injuries inflicted on opponents. "Knockouts" were worth $1,500 and "cart-offs" $1,000 — with payments doubled or tripled for the playoffs, the league said.
According to the league, the pay-for-pain program was administered by Williams, with Payton's knowledge. At the time, Williams apologized for his role, saying: "It was a terrible mistake, and we knew it was wrong while we were doing it."
Later that month, Payton became the first head coach suspended by the league for any reason, while Williams was suspended indefinitely.