The NFL Players Association told its members involved in the New Orleans Saints' bounty case that there is a chance they could face criminal charges and that it has hired outside counsel to represent them if needed.
As Roger Goodell, the league's commissioner, weighs how to punish the two dozen or so players the NFL says might be connected to the bounties, the NFLPA also suggested that players have a lawyer and union representative present when they are interviewed by NFL investigators.
The union plans to head to New York this week to meet league security staff and review additional evidence, taking up the NFL on an offer it made more than once.
The latest steps were described to the Associated Press by two people familiar with the case. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing.
The NFL has said that 22 to 27 defensive players were part of the Saints' pay-for-pain bounty pool, which awarded thousands of dollars of bonuses from 2009 to 2011 for vicious hits that knocked targeted opponents out of games.
One example, according to the league: the linebacker Jonathan Vilma offered US$10,000 (Dh36,732) to any New Orleans player who sidelined Brett Favre, the Minnesota Vikings quarterback, during the 2010 NFC championship game.
On March 21, Goodell suspended Sean Payton, the Saints coach, for all of next season; Mickey Loomis, the general manager, for eight games; Joe Vitt, the assistant coach, for six games; and Gregg Williams, the former defensive coordinator, for at least one season. Goodell also fined the Saints $500,000 and took away two second-round draft picks.
The appeals process is expected to begin this week. The league has not given any timetable for when Goodell will decide on penalties for the players, creating uncertainty for the Saints - as well as other teams who might now have any of the players involved.
Gabe Feldman, a law professor and director of the Tulane Sports Law Program, said he did not expect any criminal or civil legal action specifically tied to the bounties.
"They're difficult cases to bring, because it's hard to prove the injury was caused by a tackle with specific intent to injure, rather than a regular tackle," Feldman said at the time.
"We all know injuries are a part of football. There can't be legal liability anytime there is an injury. Otherwise, you can't have football."