NFL commissioner Roger Goodell held an appeal Monday in Manhattan for the four Saints players suspended over an alleged bounty program. After ripping Goodell, linebacker Jonathan Vilma walked out before the proceedings ended.
"Roger Goodell has taken three months to tarnish what I've built over eight years of my career," said Vilma, who was suspended for the 2012 season, as was coach Sean Payton. "It's tough to swallow, knowing that from here on out, no matter where I go, I'll be forever linked to a 'bountygate that's simply not true.' Everyone will have their opinions and will either believe me or not believe me. There's no in-between.''
Vilma said he doesn't expect Goodell to reduce his suspension. "I don't know how you get a fair process when you have a judge, jury and executioner [in Goodell]," he said. "It's hard to go into a process assuming that it's fair. You have to assume that it's not."
After the hearing, NFL officials and former federal prosecutor Mary Jo White, who assisted in the investigation, briefed the media for 90 minutes. White and NFL director of security Jeff Miller said evidence was sent to players and their attorneys Friday.
Among the NFL's findings: Former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, assistant coach Joe Vitt and Mike Ornstein, a close friend of Payton's, confirmed the bounty program's existence in testimony to NFL investigators.
The league gave a power-point presentation in which dollar amounts were discussed for big hits in the 2009-11 seasons. According to the NFL, witnesses said Vilma offered $10,000 to anyone who knocked Vikings quarterback Brett Favre out of the 2009 NFC title game. The NFL also said a hand-written note indicated Ornstein, Vitt and former Saint Charles Grant offered a combined $25,000 on top of Vilma's offer.
The NFL presented a document that urged players to go after three Seahawks in a January 2011 playoff game. On the bottom of the page, next to a picture of Duane Chapman, known as the "Dog the Bounty Hunter," was: "Now it's time to do our job . . . collect bounty $$$. No apologies! Let's go hunting!"
Goodell, who did not speak to reporters, may rule Friday or perhaps early next week.
After the hearing, former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita, who was suspended three games, said the process of punishing players has been flawed and unfair.
"In the last couple of months, the NFL has embarked on a smear campaign, highlighted by sensational headlines,'' Fujita said. "I have yet to see anything that implicates me in some pay-to-injure scheme . . . and perhaps that's because there's nothing that could implicate me."
Fujita, Saints defensive end Will Smith and former Saint Anthony Hargrove left the league's offices before reporters were briefed. Vilma left after a morning session in which players' attorneys complained the league didn't deliver evidence a full 72 hours before the hearing.
NFL lead counsel Jeff Pash said the league takes no delight in punishing players. "If we're serious about promoting a culture that values safe play, we sometimes are going to have to face difficult issues," he said. "There are a lot of people taking a hit here, starting with the NFL.
"Does anyone think this is how we wanted to spend our time, taking one of the great stories, the New Orleans Saints, where we're going to play the Super Bowl this year, and have this dominate the headlines? But we had a responsibility to address it in a way that was fair to anyone involved."