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Courts could delay player suspensions in Saints' bounty scandal for months, if not years

Jason Cole
Yahoo Sports

Roger Goodell came down with his latest bit of heavy-handed punishment regarding the New Orleans Saints' bounty scandal, but be sure of one thing: As quickly as Goodell might want to resolve this, the wheels of justice tend to be slow.

Slow enough that one attorney with knowledge of the case said he believes the suspensions of current and former Saints players Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove aren't months away from being decided.

Try years.

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Jonathan Vilma was one of four players suspended by the NFL in the Saints' bounty scandal. (AP)

"This is going to be complex on multiple levels," said the attorney, who declined to be identified. "On one side you're going to have all the attorneys for the players and every argument they're going to throw out there; the discovery process … it's going to be a mess.

"On [the NFL's] side you have [Goodell] and the stand he has taken. They'll fight this to the death, I have no doubt. You don't fight with Roger out in public and expect that he's going to back down. You fight with him in private and make it so that he can look like he has everything under control."

Or, as the attorney summarized: "The players might win this, but they picked the wrong way to fight it."

[Related: Dan Wetzel – New Orleans Saints get off relatively lightly with player bounty suspensions]

The attorney believes the players, by not cooperating with the NFL's investigative process, pushed Goodell into a corner, forcing him to take public action. On Wednesday, the NFL handed down a one-year suspension for Vilma, eight games for Hargrove, four for Smith and three for Fujita for their roles in the scandal. This comes after New Orleans coach Sean Payton was suspended for one year, assistant coach Joe Vitt for six games, general manager Mickey Loomis for eight games and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams indefinitely.

The league gave the players three days to file appeals of the suspensions, although those appeals will be heard by Goodell. That is another huge bone of contention for the players.

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Roger Goodell (Getty Images)

The reason for the harsh penalties has much to do with the failure of the players to speak with Goodell during the investigation process. Rather than cooperate with the commissioner, which is normal procedure for players who face suspension, most Saints players – Hargrove being an exception – declined to talk to Goodell.

The players and the NFL Players Association have complained that the NFL has not provided evidence proving the involvement of Vilma, Fujita, et al. On Wednesday, Vilma strongly denied an accusation that he paid $10,000 to anyone who knocked out then Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre in the 2009 NFC championship game.

"I am shocked and extremely disappointed by the NFL's decision to suspend me," Vilma said in a statement. "Goodell has refused to share any of the supposed evidence he claims supports this unprecedented punishment. The reason is clear: I never paid, or intended to pay, $10,000, or any amount of money, to any player for knocking Kurt Warner, Brett Favre or any other player, out of the 2009 [playoffs], or any other game.

"I never set out to intentionally hurt any player and never enticed any teammate to intentionally hurt another player. I also never put any money into a bounty pool or helped to create a bounty pool intended to pay out money for injuring other players. … I intend to fight this injustice, to defend my reputation, to stand up for my team and my profession."

Hargrove, according to a release issued by the NFL, "submitted a signed declaration to the league that established not only the existence of the program at the Saints, but also that he knew about and participated in it."

Vilma has retained the services of New York-based attorney Peter Ginsberg, the same attorney who successfully defended Vikings defensive linemen Kevin and Pat Williams in the "Starcaps" case.

Ginsberg declined to say what exact course of action he would take in Vilma's defense. However, another source said Ginsberg was advising the players to "go rogue" and sue the league over this matter. At least one other player has spoken with Ginsberg about representation, but so far only Vilma has retained him.

[Related: Jonathan Vilma reportedly found out about suspension from 'SportsCenter']

Beyond the players, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith indicated the union would support the players' fight.

"After seeing the NFL's decision letters, the NFLPA has still not received any detailed or specific evidence from the league of these specific players' involvement in an alleged pay-to-injure program," Smith said. "We have made it clear that punishment without evidence is not fair. We have spoken with our players and their representatives and we will vigorously protect and pursue all options on their behalf."

For Smith, a protracted fight could help his standing. He has been criticized in the past by players for not making sure that the appeal process over suspensions for player conduct was through a third party. The chance to get a court ruling against the NFL and Goodell would serve Smith and the union well in that future battle.

The upshot of all this is that with the start of training camp less than three months away, there is a good chance that, as with the Starcaps case, the suspensions could be held up by the court process, meaning Vilma, Smith, Fujita and Hargove could be in uniform on opening day and beyond.

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