By BARRY WILNER / AP Pro Football Writer
With the Saints bounty case moving to grievance hearings and court, NFL owners will talk about player safety when they meet on Tuesday.
The issue is on the agenda for the owners' session in Atlanta, where Commissioner Roger Goodell is certain to be asked about Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma's defamation lawsuit against him. Meanwhile, Goodell's authority for administering discipline is being challenged by the players' union, Vilma and three other players suspended for their roles in the pay-for-hits system.
That's the hot topic, but hardly the only topic. Owners also will discuss several bylaw changes that were tabled in March, including designating one player suffering a major injury before Week 2 of the season as eligible to return from injured reserve, and moving the trading deadline back two weeks to after Week 8.
Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay, chairman of the competition committee, expects both measures to pass.
"There were good ideas and suggestions, no resistance," he said at the last meetings. "We'll work on the language."
The language from the players punished in the bounty case has been strong and challenging of the league's findings. Vilma's lawsuit claims Goodell made false statements that tarnished the linebacker's reputation and hindered his ability to earn a living playing football. Vilma has been suspended for the 2012 season.
The suit in U.S. District Court in New Orleans claims Goodell, "relied on, at best, hearsay, circumstantial evidence and lies" in making comments about Vilma while discussing the NFL's bounty investigation.
The union filed a grievance with an arbitrator asserting that Goodell has no power to discipline players for actions that occurred before the league's current labor agreement was signed last August.
Vilma and current Saints teammate defensive end Will Smith, plus former Saints Anthony Hargrove, a defensive end now with Green Bay, and Scott Fujita, a linebacker now with Cleveland, have appealed their suspensions. Smith got four games, Hargrove eight and Fujita three.
Their appeal asks another arbitrator to decide if the players should be punished for the system that the league says ran for three years and paid improper cash bonuses for hits that injured targeted opponents. The union argues that the arbitrator, Stephen Burbank, and not Goodell should hear the four players' appeals.
On other issues, the NFL has informally looked at further changes to kickoff returns, considered the most dangerous play in football. It already has altered the defenseless player rules to include offensive and defensive players, and there even have been suggestions about eliminating the three-point stance for line play.
Equipment issues also could be discussed at these meetings, with a close eye on concussions. Dozens of lawsuits have been filed against the league by former players and their families claiming the league didn't warn them about the long-term effects of head trauma.
The players are opposed to mandatory use of hip, thigh and knee pads, something the owners are considering for the 2013 season. As it has done in the Saints case, the union could file a grievance, claiming such changes should be bargained, not unilaterally imposed by the league.