NEW YORK — NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was hearing the appeals Monday of four players suspended for their role in the Saints bounty program.
On hand at NFL headquarters were all four players: Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who was suspended for the 2012 season, and defensive end Will Smith, docked for four games; Green Bay defensive end Anthony Hargrove, suspended for eight games; and Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita (three games).
All four players were on the Saints roster when then-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, by his own admission, ran a pay-for-pain operation that handed out cash bonuses for big hits on targeted opponents.
Lawyers for the players and the NFL Players Association also attended Monday's hearing. The union recently lost two grievances challenging Goodell's authority to hand out discipline for the bounty system.
Smith, Hargrove, and Fujita and their attorneys all arrived together. Vilma and his lawyer showed up separately.
Smith, Hargrove and Fujita issued a joint statement saying were attending the hearing not because they were admitting to being part of the bounty program — or because they believed Goodell had the right to punish them — but because they felt the league "would attempt to publicly mischaracterize our refusal to attend."
"Shame on the National Football League and Commissioner Goodell for being more concerned about 'convicting' us publicly than being honorable and fair to men who have dedicated their professional lives to playing this game with honor," the three players said.
Asked what he expected from the hearing, Vilma replied: "I have no idea."
The NFL turned over evidence to the four players and the union on Friday, as required by the collective bargaining agreement. That information included some 200 pages of documents, with emails, power-point presentations, even handwritten notes, plus one video recording. But a ledger that reportedly documents payments of $1,000 for plays called "cart-offs" and $400 for "whacks," as well as $100 fines for mental errors, was not in the material.
Previously, Goodell suspended Saints coach Sean Payton for the season and assistant coach Joe Vitt for six games. Saints general manager Mickey Loomis got eight games, while Williams — now with the St. Louis Rams — was suspended indefinitely.
The NFL's investigation of the Saints found Williams ran a system for three years under which payouts were set on targeted opponents, including Brett Favre and Kurt Warner. The program was in effect from 2009, when New Orleans won the Super Bowl, until last season.
AP Sports Writer Brett Martel in New Orleans contributed to this story.