At some point, Jonathan Vilma and the other "aggrieved parties" involved in the Saints' bounty scandal who are still fighting the fight against their own suspensions will have to realize that they're running out of air. Jason Cole's story late last week about the existence of a ledger detailing bounties struck a blow against Vilma and his buddies in the court of public opinion, and now, the arbitrator assigned to hear the Saints' appeal in certain suspensions has rules decisively in the NFL's favor.
On Monday morning, Special Master Stephen Burbank ruled that Roger Goodell had jurisdiction to suspend Vilma for a year, and three other current and former Saints players for a series of games, based on a collective bargaining agreement that was established after some of the alleged "pay-to-injure" incidents took place. That was the big blow to the Saints' case, as Burbank ruled that the idea of "pay-for-performance" was more onerous than any specific incident that may have come out of it.
The NFL summarized it thusly in a statement:
"System Arbitrator Stephen Burbank upheld the commissioner's authority under the Collective Bargaining Agreement to impose "conduct detrimental" discipline on players who provided or offered to provide financial incentives to injure opponents. He also upheld the commissioner's authority to impose such discipline against players who obstructed a league investigation. The System Arbitrator thus confirmed the commissioner's authority to suspend Mr. Fujita, Mr. Smith and Mr. Vilma. He invited the commissioner to clarify the precise basis for his discipline of Mr. Hargrove who, among other things, was found to have lied to the league's investigators and obstructed their investigation."
While the players and the NFLPA believe that the suspensions fall outside the purview of the "conduct detrimental" clause Goodell invoked in his letters to the players informing them of the suspensions, Burbank ruled that such arguments are irrelevant.
The NFLPA, of course, disagreed.
In the opinion, system arbitrator Stephen Burbank wrote, "[I]t is important to emphasize — with respect to all of the Players — that nothing in this opinion is intended to convey a view about the underlying facts or the appropriateness of the discipline imposed."
The union believes that the players are entitled to neutral arbitration of these issues under the CBA and will continue to fight for that principle and to protect the fair due process rights of all players.
Vilma, Saints end Will Smith, and current Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita are still awaiting a decision from arbitrator Shyam Das on a grievance filed in early May. That claim states that since the alleged incidents happened on the field, the penalties for any involvement are the jurisdiction of collectively bargained arbitrators Ted Cottrell or Art Shell. The NFL went with the global "conduct detrimental" argument in that case as well, and if Das rules in favor of the league, you can expect "conduct detrimental" language to be used as the hammer for every league ruling against the players.
As for ex-Saints and current Green Bay Packers defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, Burbank asked the league why Hargrove's suspension went eight games, while Fujita's and Smith's were shorter. Per the letter from the NFL to Hargrove, it is believed that Hargrove lied to the NFL during the initial bounty investigation, and thus the extra games.
"With respect to your particular involvement, the record establishes that you actively participated in the program while a member of the Saints. Your declaration makes clear that the program existed at the Saints, and establishes that you knew about and participated in it. In addition, although you later denied it, the circumstances strongly suggest that you told at least one player on another club about the program, and confirmed that Vikings quarterback Brett Favre was a target of a bounty.
"Moreover, and perhaps most important, you admitted that you intentionally obstructed the league's investigation into the program by being untruthful to investigators. Your declaration acknowledges that you lied, but claims that you were instructed to do so by the coaching staff. Assuming that to be the case, it in no way absolved you from your obligation to cooperate with the investigation, particularly with respect to matters involving player safety and the integrity of the game.["]
"I will retain jurisdiction as to Mr. Hargrove pending further action by the Commissioner either in a revised letter or in connection with Mr. Hargrove's appeal," Burbank wrote in his ruling.
Again, if the Das ruling comes back as the league would like it -- that "conduct detrimental" language is enough to establish jurisdiction -- the only hope for the players at that point is if the discovery process in Vilma's libel/defamation lawsuit shows that the league didn't have the evidence indicated.
And if the league does have that evidence ... well, you can pretty much put this case to bed, once and for all, and to the great relief of the majority of fans and observers tired of the moral outrage, generic posturing, and billable hours.