WASHINGTON — It had been 10 months since New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma and defensive end Will Smith were face to face with their former defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams — a span that included NFL suspensions for all three in connection with what a league investigation determined was a cash-for-hits bounty program.
For about four hours Friday, Vilma and Smith sat and watched while their lawyers cross-examined Williams during a hearing that is part of the players’ latest appeals of their punishments.
“We got to hear what Gregg had to say,” Smith said afterward. “We wanted to make sure we were there just to hear him out.”
Smith described the hearing, the third this week in Washington overseen by former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, as “peaceful” and “not awkward.”
Smith, suspended four games, and Vilma, suspended for the entire current season, have been allowed back on the field while their appeals are pending, and both flew into town after playing in the Saints’ 23-13 loss at the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday night. Two former New Orleans players also were banned: Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita had his suspension reduced to one game, while free-agent defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove has not played in the NFL this season but faces a two-game suspension if he signs with a team.
Smith and Vilma were not required to attend Friday, but wanted to be in the room when their former coach was questioned.
“We know what we did and know what we didn’t do,” Smith said. “I mean, we just wanted to be there because it was our right to be there.”
The NFL has described Vilma and Smith as ringleaders — and Williams as being in charge — of a performance pool designed to knock targeted opponents out of games from 2009 to 2011. The league has sworn statements from Williams and former Saints assistant coach Mike Cerullo — who testified Thursday — saying Vilma offered $10,000 to anyone who knocked quarterback Brett Favre out of the NFC Championship game at the end of the 2009 season.
They declined to discuss any details of Friday’s hearing, citing Tagliabue’s insistence that the contents of the appeals process remain private. The hearings — scheduled to resume Monday in New Orleans — have been behind closed doors. Vilma is supposed to be questioned next week.
Tagliabue and various lawyers declined to comment Thursday or Friday.
“Paul wants to keep it under wraps, keep everything low-key ... so not really much I can say right now,” Vilma said.
“Of course,” he added, “it felt good being able to go in there.”
Vilma said it was the first time he had seen Williams since January, when the Saints’ season ended with a playoff loss against San Francisco.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell issued the initial suspensions, which also included a full-season ban for Saints coach Sean Payton.
Lawsuits brought by Vilma and the NFL Players Association to challenge Goodell’s handling of the case, including his decision in October to appoint Tagliabue as the arbitrator for the appeals, are pending in federal court in New Orleans.
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan gave the parties until Monday to answer questions about whether the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement prevents a commissioner from handing out discipline for legal contact, and whether the CBA’s passages about detrimental conduct are “ambiguous, hence unenforceable.”
In March, the NFL announced that its investigation showed the Saints put together a bounty pool of up to $50,000 to reward game-ending injuries inflicted on opponents. “Knockouts” were worth $1,500 and “cart-offs” $1,000 — with payments doubled or tripled for the playoffs, the league said.
According to the league, the pay-for-pain program was administered by Williams, with Payton’s knowledge. At the time, Williams apologized for his role, saying: “It was a terrible mistake, and we knew it was wrong while we were doing it.”
Later that month, Payton became the first head coach suspended by the league for any reason — banned for all of this season without pay — and Williams was suspended indefinitely.
Williams was known for his aggressive, physical defenses as a coordinator for Tennessee, Washington, Jacksonville and New Orleans, and during his time as head coach of Buffalo. In January, he was hired by St. Louis to lead their defense but hasn’t been able to do that while suspended.
When Vilma and Smith made an earlier attempt to appeal their punishments, Goodell refused to reduce their bans.
As Vilma, wearing a gray suit, headed out of the building Friday, a reporter told him that Smith indicated the hearing was helpful.
“Yeah? Well, we said that last time,” Vilma replied, “and we saw how that turned out. So we’ll see what happens.”