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NFLPA: League has video of Saints defensive meetings; witnesses 'fear retribution'

By Will Brinson | NFL Writer
The NFLPA requested videotapes of Saints defensive meeting it contends the NFL possesses. (US Presswire)

On Monday, Roger Goodell will hear the appeals of the four former and/or current Saints players -- Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove -- who were suspended by the league. In advance of those hearings, the NFL is required by the new CBA to provide "copies of any exhibits upon which they intend to rely."

The league has to provide said evidence three calendar days before the hearing. The NFLPA previously requested that the league compel specific witnesses (former and current Saints coaches, as well as former NFL investigators) to appear at the hearings.

Now the union, in a letter obtained by CBSSports.com, has requested "several taped recordings and photographs" of "Saints defensive teams meetings and games during the 2010 season" that the union contends the NFL possesses.

The NFLPA alleges in its letter that the NFL acquired these tapes during March of 2012 but did not inform the union or the suspended players of their existence.

A league source confirmed to CBSSports.com's Jason La Canfora the existence of a tape or tapes from the 2011 season that were shot by an associate of Gregg Williams. The source said the NFL has been in possession of those tapes for some time and that the associate of Williams is turning over those tapes to the NFLPA. However, the source also said there is nothing incriminating toward the players or coaches.

The NFL declined comment on whether or not the league was in possession of the specific pieces of evidence requested by the union.

"We are following the procedures set forth in the CBA on appeals of commissioner discipline," NFL VP of Communications Greg Aiello told CBSSports.com. "Those procedures include the parties exchanging 'copies of any exhibits upon which they intend to rely no later than three calendar days prior to the hearing.'"

So if the NFL has no intention of using the videotapes as evidence against the Saints, the league is not required to disclose them.

Unfortunately, that also means if these videotapes (or any portion of the tapes) are exculpatory evidence -- meaning they portray Saints players in a positive light and/or serve to provide evidence in the Saints players' favor -- the league still is not required to disclose them, providing the league does not "intend to rely" on the tapes as proof of a pay-for-performance system. (And based on that premise, the league could, theoretically, provide a "highlight reel" of Saints players and/or coaches behaving badly instead of the full videotapes, were the league so inclined.)

Another major piece of evidence the union requested from the NFL, per the letter, are "all forms of evidence, including taking notes from witness interviews, which indicate that Gregg Williams hyperbolic language" was not meant to be taken "as literal instructions to intentionally injure opposing players."

These interviews could also serve as exculpatory evidence and therefore not fall under required discovery by the CBA provision.

The witnesses in question were specified in a previous letter from the NFLPA to the NFL and include current and former Saints coaches and NFL personnel. The NFLPA isn't optimistic that these gentlemen will appear at the hearings on Monday, because the union has "been informed that several witnesses who are current or suspended NFL club employees" are worried voluntarily appearing "would negatively impact their careers."

These witnesses, per the letter, "fear retribution" from the NFL if they appear on their own accord. Hence, the union is seeking the league to compel their appearance in support of the players.

Here are other issues at play in advance for the Monday morning hearings:

  • Timing: Monday, June 18, in New York, at the NFL office. As we understand it, this won't be that lengthy. The four suspended players will be there, as will union reps and likely some lawyers.
  • Ledger: As CBSSports.com's Mike Freeman recently wrote, there is a ledger of payments made by Saints players. That is problematic for the players. (To say the least.) That ledger reportedly contains payments made for clean plays as well.
  • Witnesses: The witnesses in question were specified in a previous letter from the NFLPA to the NFL and include current and former Saints coaches and NFL personnel. The NFLPA isn't optimistic that these gentlemen will appear at the hearings on Monday because the union has "been informed that several witnesses who are current or suspended NFL club employees" are worried that voluntarily appearing "would negatively impact their careers." These witnesses, per the letter, "fear retribution" from the NFL if they appear on their own accord. Hence, the union is seeking the league to compel their appearance in support of the players.
  • Saints refusal: Making matters more difficult for the union is the Saints refusal to come to the players' assistance in the appeals process. A league source tells CBSSports.com that the union asked the Saints in early April to provide a declaration of support for the players who were punished, on the grounds that said punishment was too severe. Per the source, the Saints refused.
  • Notes: Another major piece of evidence the union requested from the NFL, per the letter, are "all forms of evidence, including taking notes from witness interviews, which indicate that Gregg Williams hyperbolic language was not meant to be taken "as literal instructions to intentionally injure opposing players." These interviews could also serve as exculpatory evidence and therefore not fall under required discovery by the CBA provision.
 
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