The NFL's evidence against the suspended New Orleans Saints coaches, players and former players included emails that Sean Payton's close friend and confidant, Mike Ornstein, sent from prison, offering up bounties for hits.
Yet according to multiple sources familiar with the situation, Ornstein insisted his emails were jokes, and he unsuccessfully attempted to convince NFL commissioner Roger Goodell of this during their conversations.
Ornstein received support from former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who now is suspended indefinitely.
According to two sources who have seen it, Ornstein gave the NFL and the NFL Players Association a text that he said came from Williams, saying, "I stood up for you & told them just that. I told them we never took that (stuff) serious. I never ever saw you ever give $ and that's just the truth."
The text is expected to be used as evidence Monday, when the suspended players appeal their case to Goodell at the league's offices in New York.
Williams could not be reached to confirm that he sent the text, but the NFL, NFLPA and lawyers each have gotten a copy of it, and two people who saw it said he did.
Meanwhile, three of the players disciplined by the league released a statement announcing they were attending Monday's hearing, while defending themselves against "alleged activities that the National Football League has grossly misrepresented to the public."
"We are in attendance today not because we recognize the Commissioner's jurisdiction to adjudicate regarding these specious allegations, but because we believe the League would attempt to publicly mischaracterize our refusal to attend," Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita, Green Bay Packers defensive end Anthony Hargrove and Saints defensive end Will Smith said in the statement. "We will not address the substance of the NFL's case because this is not the proper venue for adjudication, and there has been no semblance of due process afforded to us.
"As veteran players of 11, 9 and 9 years in this League, we are profoundly disappointed with the NFL's conduct in this matter. We know what the NFL has publicly said we did, and the Commissioner has chosen to try to punish us and disparage our characters based on semantics, not facts. Words are cheap and power is fleeting.
"Shame on the National Football League and Commissioner Goodell for being more concerned about 'convicting' us publicly than being honorable and fair to men who have dedicated their professional lives to playing this game with honor."
Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who is suspended for the 2012 season, also was at the NFL's headquarters for the hearing, but left shortly after 11 a.m. ET. Fujita is suspended for three games, Hargrove is banned for eight games and Smith for four.
Vilma's lawyer, Peter Ginsberg, called Monday's hearing a "sham." Ginsberg said the NFL requested an
adjournment to Monday afternoon, but he and Vilma refused. Ginsberg said Goodell failed to present the evidence on which he based his decision to impose the player's suspension.
Vilma said he doesn't know how he can get a fair hearing when Goodell is "judge, jury and executioner."
All four players were on the Saints roster when Williams, by his own admission, ran a pay-for-pain operation that handed out cash bonuses for big hits on targeted opponents.
Lawyers for the players and the NFL Players Association also attended Monday's hearing. The union recently lost two grievances challenging Goodell's authority to hand out discipline for the bounty system.
The NFL turned over evidence to the four players and the union on Friday, as required by the collective bargaining agreement. That information included some 200 pages of documents, with emails, PowerPoint presentations, even handwritten notes, plus one video recording. But a ledger that reportedly documents payments of $1,000 for plays called "cart-offs" and $400 for "whacks," as well as $100 fines for mental errors, was not in the material.
The NFL's investigation of the Saints found Williams ran a system for three years under which bounties were set on targeted opponents, including Brett Favre and Kurt Warner. The program was in effect from 2009, when New Orleans won the Super Bowl, until last season.
Previously, Goodell suspended Saints coach Sean Payton for the season and assistant coach Joe Vitt for six games. Saints general manager Mickey Loomis got eight games, and Williams was suspended indefinitely. The Saints were also fined $500,000 and forfeited two second-round draft picks.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.