Players oppose Tagliabue hearing NFL bounty appeals

New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma filed motions Wednesday to have former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue removed from hearing the appeals of the four players suspended in the Saints bounties case.

The players’ union planned to file similar papers later in the day in U.S. District Court in New Orleans asking Tagliabue to recuse himself because of a conflict of interest.

Vilma also asked for a neutral arbitrator to be appointed by the court.

The NFL said it would oppose Tagliabue stepping aside.

Commissioner Roger Goodell recused himself from hearing this set of appeals and appointed his predecessor last week. But the players and their union contend Tagliabue should be disqualified because of his employment by a law firm which has handled bounty-related matters for the league and represented Goodell in Vilma’s defamation lawsuit against him.

The hearings are scheduled for next Tuesday.

The players association has concerns about “ethical and legal” issues involving Tagliabue hearing appeals by Vilma and defensive end Will Smith, Browns linebacker Scott Fujita and free agent DE Anthony Hargrove.

Fujita, meanwhile, was placed on injured reserve Wednesday by Cleveland and will miss the rest of the 2012 season. His suspension originally was three games, then was reduced to one by Goodell after a first set of player appeals.

Vilma was suspended for the entire season, but played last Sunday while the appeals process is in motion. Smith has a four-game suspension and Hargrove got eight games, subsequently reduced to seven. But he was cut in preseason by Green Bay and does not have a team.

The union also might contend that such “pay-for programs” existed when Tagliabue was commissioner, with his knowledge.

“We have advised the union that we believe there is no basis on which former Commissioner Tagliabue should recuse himself and we will oppose any request that he do so,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in an email. “The appointment is consistent with the CBA and past practice, and there is no question that Commissioner Tagliabue is fully qualified to hear these appeals.”

Last week, the NFL and the union discussed the possibility that Tagliabue would step in if Goodell recused himself from hearing the appeals, and the union also suggested “several outsiders” who could be used in place of Goodell.

Tagliabue was NFL commissioner from 1989-2006. For part of that time, Goodell was the league’s general counsel.

The collective bargaining agreement with the union that was reached to end the lockout in August 2011 gave Goodell exclusive authority to hear appeals of discipline for conduct detrimental to the league or to appoint someone to hear and decide an appeal. Goodell periodically has appointed others to hear appeals for club fines, personal conduct suspensions and for matters concerning drug and steroid policy.

Goodell handed down the suspensions in May and they took effect in July after initial appeals were rejected by Goodell. Those suspensions lasted through training camp before being vacated by a three-member appeals panel that instructed Goodell to start the disciplinary process again and clarify his reasons for suspending the players.

The suspensions were reissued by the NFL two weeks ago and promptly appealed by all four players.

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