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Players want coaches, others at bounty hearings, too

Divisional Playoffs - New Orleans Saints v San Francisco 49ers

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JANUARY 14: Head coach Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints watches his team before they take on the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Divisional playoff game at Candlestick Park on January 14, 2012 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

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The NFLPA wants to get to the truth, whether the NFL can handle it or not.

As a result, the union has -- in addition to requesting the production of evidence that may indicate the innocence of four players whose bounty suspensions will be appealed on Monday -- asked for several individuals to be present for questioning at the hearings, according to Jim Varney of the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

In a letter sent to Commissioner Roger Goodell on Thursday, the NFLPA requested that the following persons be in attendance: (1) Sean Payton, the head coach of the Saints who has been suspended for a year; (2) Gregg Williams, the former defensive coordinator of the Saints, who now is the indefinitely suspended defensive coordinator the Rams; (3) Joe Vitt, the Saints interim head coach/linebackers coach who faces a six-game suspension when the regular season begins; (4) Mickey Loomis, the Saints G.M. who will be suspended eight games when the regular season launches; (5) Blake Williams, the son of Gregg Williams and a former Saints assistant (he now works for the Rams); (6) Michael Cerullo, a former Saints assistant who reportedly blew the whistle on the bounty situation (we’ve resisted mentioning his name as long as possible but it’s now unavoidable); (7) Joe Hummel, a former NFL Security employee who worked on the bounty investigation; and (8) Jeff Miller, the head of NFL Security, who with Hummel worked on the investigation.

It’s likely that the NFL will refuse to make the witnesses available (as to Cerullo and Hummel, the NFL has no control over either of them because they no longer work for the NFL or any NFL team). With Commissioner Roger Goodell setting aside only one day for all four hearings, the league obviously envisions a streamlined and concise presentation of evidence.

The union believes that a more detailed and meaningful process is required, which would include an opportunity to question witnesses live at the hearing and to confront anyone who has suppled evidence indicating that the players offered money, paid money, and/or received money for the infliction of injury on opponents.

Once the NFL refuses the request (which seems inevitable), the NFLPA and the players will have additional ammunition for fighting the outcome of the appeal hearings in court, by claiming that the NFL’s in-house procedure lacks a fundamental level of fairness. While overturning arbitration rulings in court isn’t easy, proof that the players had no meaningful shot at proving their innocence will help.

In order to get to the truth, and in order to properly test the allegations against Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Anthony Hargrove, and Scott Fujita, the NFLPA needs to have the ability to question persons who are aware of the things that the players did and didn’t do. Gregg Williams and any other defensive coaches with knowledge of the pay-for-performance/bounty program are vital to that process. (The NFL possibly intended to have Gregg Williams testify at the appeal hearings -- before the cartoonish audio emerged of his rantings before the January 2012 playoff loss to the 49ers.)

The persons who handled the investigation become important to the process because they know what did and didn’t happen as the evidence was complied, and ultimately which evidence does or doesn’t point to guilty. Hummel becomes even more important because he resigned before the investigation ended, under circumstances that have prompted speculation that he was pushed out.

Payton’s presence on the list is perhaps the most intriguing, given that he apparently had no direct knowledge of the nuts-and-bolts of the pay-for-performance/bounty program. But as Mike Silver of Yahoo! Sports reported last week, the NFLPA previously reached out to Payton to discuss the bounty case. If Payton said anything useful, the NFLPA surely hopes he’ll repeat it on Monday.

Ultimately, it would be a surprise if the NFL relents. The league doesn’t envision the process to require the sort of procedures that would be used in a court of law. Given the consequences to the suspended players and in light of the fact that they strongly dispute the allegations, it seems that there should at least be an opportunity for them to demonstrate their innocence by testing the quality of the evidence on which the NFL has relied in telling the world that they are guilty.

If they don’t get it on Monday, hopefully they’ll get it somewhere else. They deserve a chance to prove that they didn’t do it, whether they did it or not.