NEW ORLEANS -- Three players fighting suspensions from the NFL's bounty investigation have told a federal judge they are comfortable with their representation by union lawyers and see no potential conflict of interest in the arrangement.
The players written comments on Thursday came in response to an order a day earlier by U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan, who lamented the failure of settlement talks and wrote that she was concerned there were competing agendas among lawyers on all sides in the dispute that were undermining the interests of the players.
The judge asked whether it made more sense for New Orleans defensive end Will Smith, Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita and free agent defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove to have separate lawyers, rather than the same lawyers representing the NFL Players Association.
The NFLPA also filed a response in which it explained that it has been seeking to engage league lawyers in settlement talks, "and the NFL continued to refuse to do so, never making a single settlement offer to the Players." The union added that it also sees no conflict in representing the players, but will help them get their own attorneys if the court desires.
The NFLPA, the three players, and Saints linebacker Jon Vilma, who has his own attorney, are claiming in their consolidated lawsuits that Commissioner Roger Goodell abused his authority and followed improper procedures in disciplining the players for a program that, according to NFL investigators, paid improper cash bonuses for tackles that injured opponents. The lawsuit seeks to have the punishment handed down by Goodell thrown out.
Vilma was suspended the entire season, Hargrove for eight games, Smith for four games and Fujita three games.
Earlier this week, the NFLPA asked for a temporary restraining order that would allow the three players it represents to rejoin their clubs while the case proceeds. Vilma made the same request in July, and Berrigan has yet to rule on either TRO request, but could potentially do so before the Saints and Browns open the regular season on Sunday.
Meanwhile, Smith, who like other suspended players has been barred from practicing this week, issued a statement expressing his concern that the matter was not resolved already, with the Saints' opener against Washington only three days away.
"I am disappointed my playing status remains in limbo," Smith said. "Irreparable harm has already been levied on me and the players. We have been unfairly labeled and punished by this process. While we believe in mediation and settlement, the NFL has never expressed a genuine interest in a mediation process that would provide the players with a fair venue that could be trusted, nor made a settlement offer for us to professionally consider, at any time. That is why we have asked the court for just relief. It is my sincere hope to have this matter resolved as quickly as possible so I may return to my job, teammates and fans, as we take the field against the Redskins." When Berrigan ordered the players and the union to address her concerns about conflicts of interest regarding the players' legal representation, she also ordered the NFL to respond by Thursday to the union's request for a temporary restraining order on behalf of the three players it represents in the case.
The league complied, stating that it opposes the NFLPA's TRO request for the same reason it opposed a similar request by Vilma.
Those reasons included NFL arguments that Berrigan did not have jurisdiction over the matter because the league's labor agreement was collectively bargained. NFL attorneys also have argued that granting a restraining order would motivate more players to bring similar frivolous requests to the courts in an effort to delay punishment in subsequent disciplinary matters.