By Barry Wilner, AP Pro Football Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — The NFL believes the players' union is more intent on protecting the New Orleans Saints involved in the team's bounty scandal than supporting its members who could have been hurt by the pay-for-pain plan.
Speaking to a group of Associated Press sports editors, league counsel Jeff Pash said Friday the union's approach is "unfortunate."
"They were protective of the players who could be disciplined in the next phase of this," Pash said. "That was their focus, on defending or excusing the conduct of players involved in this program. That's unfortunate; the players who could have been, or even were, injured are also members of the union.
"It's their players who put the safety of other players in jeopardy."
Commissioner Roger Goodell met with NFL Players Association head DeMaurice Smith and members of the union's executive committee on Monday. Pash expects Goodell to punish players soon.
Goodell already has suspended Saints coach Sean Payton for the 2012 season and fined the team $500,000. Former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is suspended indefinitely, New Orleans general manager Mickey Loomis begins an eight-game ban after the preseason, and interim coach Joe Vitt begins serving his six-game suspension at the same time.
"I do think there will be player discipline that is appropriate based on the facts," Pash said. "That's important because it reinforces our shared accountability here. What our investigators uncovered is a serious violation of the rules and our player safety policies."
Spokesman George Atallah cited the union's responsibility to all of its players and asked to have more information from the league's investigation turned over to the NFLPA.
"Given the current dynamic, we have an obligation to ensure that players have fair due process and we protect them from the league," Atallah said. "If the league was more forthcoming in the information they have related to what they are alleging took place, perhaps we could be in a better position to deal with this issue in a collaborative manner."
After the scandal broke, the NFL required all team owners and coaches to certify in writing their teams will never have such a program. Pash said the league has received those assurances from all 32 franchises.
But it's the players, he said, who can ensure bounties will disappear from the league.
"The players understand what went on in the locker room or on the field," he said. "They can do as much or more to stop this type of activity than all the edicts from Park Avenue."
Pash expressed hope that human growth hormone testing of the players will begin before the season. The league and union have an agreement in principle to conduct a population study that could clear the way to start testing.
The sides agreed to HGH testing in the Collective Bargaining Agreement last summer that ended the lockout, but it was contingent on the players approving the process. The union has backed away while seeking more information on the reliability and parameters of the test.
"If doing a population study helps us get over that hurdle ... if we get the mechanics of the study in place, yes, I think so in time for the season," Pash said. "We have no interest in wrongly identifying NFL players using HGH."
An 18-game regular season remains a consideration, but not before the NFL has gone through a full season of the practice and workout limitations in the new CBA. While acknowledging the quality of preseason games is not what the league wants, Pash said the NFL must effectively balance health and safety concerns for the players with an expansion of the regular season.
The union would have to approve increasing the schedule from 16 games and would certainly seek more roster spots.
Pash also said the league is examining changes to the Pro Bowl to make it more competitive and interesting.
"It's not going to ever look like a playoff game," he said, "but to improve it so fans are not saying, `I feel bad watching it.'
"The guys in the game say they were a little embarrassed by it."