As former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue weighs the evidence in the New Orleans Saints bounty case, it's coming out that the NFL, which handed the case over to Tagliabue to avoid the appearance of impropriety, made a last-ditch settlement offer to the players involved, and that the offer was rejected.
Tagliabue is expected to reach a decision by Thursday.
The league offered to reduce the suspensions for Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, Saints defensive end Will Smith, Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita, and free-agent defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove in exchange for admissions of guilt from the players, according to Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk.
The settlement offers, which were first reported by Ed Werder and Chris Mortensen of ESPN, could have left Smith with a four-game fine and Hargrove with a two-game suspension, contingent on his signing with another team. It is not known what, if any, offers were made to Vilma and Fujita, the two players who have been most outspoken about the NFL's handling of the bounty scandal and current commissioner Roger Goodell's role in it.
On Oct. 19, Goodell announced that he was appointing Tagliabue, his predecessor, to take over the case.
"I have appointed former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue to serve as the hearing officer for the upcoming appeals," Goodell said in a statement. "Paul Tagliabue is a genuine football authority whose tenure as commissioner was marked by his thorough and judicious approach to all matters. He has many years of experience in NFL collective bargaining matters and an impeccable reputation for integrity.
"To be clear, I have not consulted with Paul Tagliabue at any point about the Saints matter nor has he been any part of the process. Furthermore, under our process the hearing officer has full authority and complete independence to decide the appeal and determine any procedural issues regarding the hearings. I will have no role in the upcoming hearings or in Mr. Tagliabue's decisions."
Vilma has said that he feels the Tagliabue-led process would be more fair and equitable.
"I think it's a good first step for Paul to be the neutral arbitrator," Vilma said before the hearings, which ended on Dec. 3, began. "We expect that he'll do things in a neutral capacity that will allow us to cross-examine some of the witnesses, that will allow us to see some of the evidence."
After his testimony, Vilma merely said that he was happy with the way that things went, and that Tagliabue seemed more receptive to all sides. He refused further comment, respecting Tagliabue's request that the process remain confidential until there is a ruling. However, Vilma did express consternation that two key witnesses, former Saints assistant Mike Cerullo and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, were to testify on Nov. 29 and 30, and the Saints were playing the Atlanta Falcons on the 29th. All suspended players are allowed to play pending appeal rulings, though Hargrove is without a team and Fujita is on injured reserve.
"I'm kind of disappointed in that because these are the guys that essentially made the case against me," Vilma said, while blaming Goodell for the timing of Cerullo's and Williams' testimony. "I would love to be there to see them, hear what they have to say, talk to Peter [Ginsberg], my attorney, about it."
If Vilma and the other players don't like what they hear from Tagliabue, they can still seek relief from New Orleans-based judge Helen G. Berrigan, who has made some very testy comments from the bench when reviewing Goodell's broad powers and possible misuse of them. Berrigan has said that she will wait to drop her own particular hammer until she sees how the NFL's internal process takes shape.
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