By Tony Grossi
The Morning Kickoff …
And the winner is: Three years of NFL investigation into the New Orleans Saints pay-to-injure bounty scandal produced thousands of billable hours for lawyers, millions of words of claims, counter-claims and commentary, and a Grand Canyon-size crater of mistrust between players and the commissioner of their sport.
The scandal neared – but did not necessarily reach -- a conclusion Tuesday when former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who was appointed by his successor, Roger Goodell, issued a 22-page ruling on the four former or present Saints players originally suspended by Goodell.
Tagliabue affirmed the factual findings of Goodell’s investigation, but vacated the suspensions of all four players.
Tagliabue basically ruled that Goodell’s punishment of the players was excessive. He laid the blame for the whole scandal on the Saints coaches and executives who conceived the scheme, looked the other way, and then lied about it when it came to light. He upheld the severe sanctions against coaches Sean Payton, Gregg Williams and Joe Vitt, and General Manager Mickey Loomis.
(The fact that coaches and executives have no union to protect their legal interests no doubt played a huge role in their sanctions being upheld.)
In the case of Browns linebacker Scott Fujita, however, Tagliabue went a step further.
Not only did Tagliabue vacate Fujita’s suspension of one game, which Goodell had reduced from three games, he differentiated that Fujita’s participation in pledging money in a team pool for performance – not a pay-for-injury bounty -- was not conduct detrimental to the league.
Fujita was the only one of the four players whose actions were not considered conduct detrimental.
In other words, Fujita was completely exonerated. When the dust settled, he was the only winner in the sordid case.
Right is right: All along, Fujita disputed the claims against him and said he was innocent of Goodell’s charges.
From the start, he admitted to offering money to former Saints teammates for making big plays.
Goodell contended that because Fujita was “a respected leader of the Saints’ defense and role model for other players” he should have blown the whistle on the pay-for-injury program. Goodell also got personal when he wrote in his letter of suspension that he was “surprised and disappointed” that Fujita, a renowned advocate of player safety, didn’t do more to more to stop the bounty program.
Tagliabue compared Fujita’s actions to those of players with the Packers and Patriots in 2007 and 2008, who pledged money for big plays – not injuries. While a violation of league policy, Tagliabue noted that the teams involved were fined $25,000 or less and the players were not disciplined.
Goodell’s original hammer-drop on Fujita would have cost him about $645, 000 in game checks.
Fujita insisted, “Listen, my reputation is a lot more valuable to me than three game checks.” He hopes to coach at the high school or college level some day and felt it extremely important to clear his name.
Reputation restored and then some: Fujita received tremendous support via Twitter from teammates and other players upon being totally cleared in Tagliabue’s ruling.
Tight end Ben Watson wrote: “Congrats to the whole @scottfujita99 family! Should have never been put through this whole ordeals but I know you’re stronger for it. Love yall.”
Kicker Phil Dawson wrote: “Absolutely thrilled for my teammate Scott Fujita. Great guy. Great player. Great outcome.”
Punter Reggie Hodges wrote: “Happy for us @scottfujita99! Got a tone of respect for you, on and off the field.”
And then there was this from Hunter Hillenmeyer, a former linebacker with the Packers and Bears: “Well Tagliabue said he would be unbiased, and looks like he told the truth. Now if @scottfujita99 can get his reputation back please.”
Fujita not only got his reputation back, I think it grew as a result of this whole ordeal.
|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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