By Tony Grossi
The Morning Kickoff …
How do you prove a negative?: Commissioner Roger Goodell is expected to rule any day on Scott Fujita’s appeal of his three-game suspension for alleged involvement in the New Orleans Saints “bounty” scandal of 2009.
Despite the absence of any credible evidence proving Fujita contributed money to a “pay-for-injury” program, Goodell is not expected to lift entirely or reduce Fujita’s suspension.
Fujita has admitted to pledging money for big plays, such as interceptions, turnovers and sacks, but steadfastly maintains he never paid for injuries and would never be involved in such a program.
But since Goodell is judge, juror and executioner in these NFL spats, Fujita will have little recourse but to serve the suspension, which comes at a cost of about $645,000 to him. He has said the damage to his reputation is more severe than the monetary penalty.
In the court of public opinion, Fujita and the other three Saints players suspended seemingly lost this fight a long time ago. Who has more credibility – the commissioner of the NFL or the players? Even though the NFL’s case against Fujita and the others has appeared less credible than originally set forth, most fans I hear from just want Fujita to take his medicine and get ready for when his suspension is over.
The league’s case has been framed to make it nearly impossible for the players and the union representing them to defend themselves.
“It’s very tough to prove a negative,” Fujita said, exasperated by the strain of the ordeal. “It’s a really challenging thing to do.”
A smear campaign?: In recent interviews, Fujita has said he believes the NFL has conducted a “smear campaign” and rigged the evidence of a very sloppy investigation to nail four players. How sloppy was the investigation? In the letter to Fujita describing his discipline, the NFL stated he played for the Saints in 2010 when he was actually with the Browns.
Goodell previously came down hard with unprecedented suspensions of Saints coaches Sean Payton (full year), defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (indefinite), assistant Joe Vitt (six games) and GM Tom Loomis (eight games).
The league’s original announcement of the suspensions stated that 22 to 27 players were involved. Yet only four were singled out because of their “leadership” positions, the extent of their involvement or for obstructing (through lying) the investigation.
A common question is why didn’t the players defend themselves in the Court of Goodell when they were invited to do so? The answer to that is the lawyers advised them that once they stepped into that forum the players would be acknowledging that Goodell had jurisdiction over the case. The lawyers decided their best defense was arguing that Goodell should not be allowed to rule on the players’ appeals – even though the league Collective Bargaining Agreement gives him such authority.
Another question concerns whether Fujita’s act of pledging money for big plays was a violation of the CBA. At one point he was willing to concede that, but now he disputes that his random acts violated the CBA.
"At no time did I ever contribute to any type of organized pool -- whether it be for big plays, pay-for-performance, 'general pool,' or any other Gregg Williams-lingo stat," Fujita said in an email response. "What I have done and have openly admitted to doing is independently paying teammates for a variety of big plays, generally on a very impulsive basis. For example, I might run out to the special teams huddle right before a kickoff against a team with a great kickoff returner and offer $100 for a tackle inside the 20. Or if we needed a big game out of our DBs, I might offer up to $500 for an interception in the pre-game locker room or at the team hotel. And if I was trying to get our D-line going (which would have been most common), I might put up a little money for sacks and FFs (forced fumbles).
"I've probably done this maybe a dozen times or so in my career, depending on the mood I was in, the feeling in the locker room, the opponent, etc. And when the games were bigger, the offers would increase. All very impulsive ... never premeditated. Like I've said before, just as it was done by vets when I was a young player trying to make my way in the league ... the NFL's equivalent of helmet stickers.
"So again, I emphasize, nothing toward any pool, nothing toward 'big hits' or 'whacks' or however one decides to phrase it, and certainly nothing to incentivize causing injury. And according to Article 14 of the CBA, this is NOT against the rules."
Why go after him?: At first, I thought Fujita’s record of voicing concerns about player safety in his role on the NFLPA executive committee would save him in Goodell’s court. But it may have been held against him.
Fujita has been outspoken against Goodell’s “inconsistency” in pledging concern about player safety while at the same time advocating an expansion of the season to 18 games. Fujita also questioned the league’s laxity in linking concussion injuries to long-term health effects. In union meetings at which Goodell was present, Fujita was known for putting Goodell on spot with direct questions and refutations.
Some believe Goodell has trumped up this case to present some defense against the gigantic, impending lawsuits joined now by more than 2,000 former players who accuse the NFL of not disclosing information about the long-term effects of concussions.
“At times, I’ve felt bad for the commissioner,” Fujita said. “I realize he’s trying to keep this game from falling into the quicksand. But the NFL has to be very careful of what they wish for.”
|Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com. |
He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 44 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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