The NFL Players Association has challenged the league’s suspensions of four players in the New Orleans Saints’ bounty case.

The union contends in a grievance that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell does not have the authority to suspend the players for conduct prior to the sport’s current labor deal being ratified last summer.

In a separate case filed with Stephen Burbank, the sport’s system arbitrator, the union maintains that Burbank has jurisdiction over the discipline in the matter.

Burbank, a University of Pennsylvania law professor, is in charge of resolving disputes between the league and union arising from their collective bargaining agreement.

The filings were made late Thursday and revealed on a Web site affiliated with the union.

The NFL announced Wednesday it had suspended Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma for the entire season for his role in the bounty program, in which players received cash payments the past three seasons for hits that injured opponents.

Saints defensive end Will Smith was suspended for four games. Former Saints defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, now with Green Bay, was suspended for eight games. Former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita, now with Cleveland, was suspended for three games.

The suspensions are without pay.

“The league made a decision to punish our players in a manner which we think is inconsistent with the collective bargaining agreement and inconsistent with the facts,” NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith said in an interview Friday.

The NFL maintains that Goodell has the authority to impose the suspensions and acted on strong evidence when he did so.

   In reaction to the union’s filings, the league issued a statement Friday that said: “The proceedings do not challenge the underlying facts, which were first shared with the union more than two months ago after being obtained from Saints executives, coaches, players, and others. The proceedings also do not challenge the reasonableness of the discipline imposed by the commissioner.

   “In one proceeding, the union seeks immunity for the four suspended players, a position it never advanced during months of discussion on this matter. In the other, the union argues that someone other than the commissioner should have imposed the discipline.

   “We expect that the arbitrators will… reject the union’s efforts to protect players from accountability for prohibited and dangerous conduct directed against other players and… uphold the disciplinary process that was so carefully negotiated in the Collective Bargaining less than a year ago.”

Smith refuses to even use the phrase “bountygate” because he says the NFL has yet to show evidence that NFL players we,re involved in the alleged pay-to-injure scheme the league says took place in New Orleans under former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.

“They chose the word ‘bounty,’ not us,” Smith said. “And worse yet, they’ve made the decision to not prove up the words they chose to use. We believe that we have a right and an obligation to ask them to prove up their choice of words, and so far they’ve refused.” 

In handing down the suspensions earlier this week, the NFL did not revealed the alleged infractions by the four Saints’ players, nor did it did it details their level of involvement, Smith said.

“We always at least know and understand what the specific allegation is about the specific player’s conduct. And in this one, we don’t,” Smith said.

Asked whether the suspension process is functioning as it’s intended, Smith said, “I probably won’t go into that.

“If this is a violation at all, it’s a violation that relates to or directly touches conduct on the field. Presumably, the league would argue these conversations took place in the locker room, they would argue the evidence relates to coaches directing players with respect to other teams. It is a discussion framed about the course and conduct of the game.”