When the Gregg Williams audio tape surfaced last month, it elevated the New Orleans Saints' bounty scandal to a new level of public awareness and lowered the cries of unduly harsh punishment to a murmur.
Sean Pamphilon, the filmmaker who released the recording of the ex-Saints defensive coordinator's speech the night before the team's January playoff defeat to the San Francisco 49ers, called it a "smoking gun," but really, it was more than that: Williams' words took people inside a culture of amplified rhetoric and calls for violence and eliminated any doubt that a line had been crossed.
As a result, the NFL-imposed suspension of Williams – and those of Saints coach Sean Payton, assistant head coach Joe Vitt and general manager Mickey Loomis – became very difficult to dispute. Anyone in a position of authority who tolerated or perpetuated such an environment, let alone who lied to league officials and ignored their directives, was clearly culpable and, for want of a better term, cruisin' for a bruisin' from commissioner Roger Goodell.
Yet Wednesday's suspensions of current New Orleans defenders Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith, and former Saints Scott Fujita (now with the Cleveland Browns) and Anthony Hargrove (now with the Green Bay Packers), don't rise to that standard. As a result, I can understand why the punished players, many of their peers, NFL Players Association executives and Saints fans are frustrated by the severity of the penalties.
Unless and until the NFL produces unassailable evidence that these men actively participated in a pay-for-injure operation that caused tangible consequences to Saints opponents – or Pamphilon shares another tape implicating the men in question – I'll be somewhat skeptical about the depth of their involvement.
Or, to borrow from an iconic (if fictional) Arizona Cardinals wideout, Show me the money.
"If you have actual evidence of money changing hands and guys actually getting injured – if that exists – then all the suspensions are justified," Saints linebacker Scott Shanle told me Wednesday afternoon. "I think they have nothing to show. If you have evidence to show, at this point, wouldn't you show it? I don't think they have anything."
Shanle, a ninth-year veteran not known for making controversial public statements, may sound to some like a frustrated and semi-delusional player sticking up for his friends, but I wouldn't be so quick to marginalize him. For one thing, I've talked to numerous players on the Saints, and with other organizations, who basically share his sentiments.
I've also had conversations with several knowledgeable sources who question the way the league conducted its investigation, including one person interviewed by an NFL security official before the league released its report. I've heard stories of disingenuous promises and of investigators who actively sought only information that they deemed incriminating while ignoring any evidence to the contrary.
Obviously, the people with whom I've spoken have an interest in portraying the penalties as unjust, and I'm certainly not in position to judge the legitimacy of the NFL's investigation. The findings could be airtight, paper-thin or somewhere in between.
The league issued a statement Wednesday which declared that "the evidence supporting today's disciplinary decisions is based on extensive documentation and interviews with multiple sources. The information was developed by NFL Security, working with independent forensic analysts, and the disciplinary decisions are each based on evidence that has been independently corroborated by multiple sources."
On Thursday the league trotted out Mary Jo White, a former prosecutor retained by the league to provide an "independent review" of the evidence, to speak to reporters, and she described the investigation as "thorough, fair and robust."
Conversely, Vilma and Smith issued public statements strongly proclaiming their innocence, while sources close to Fujita have done the same to me in prior conversations. (Fujita acknowledged in March to Sports Illustrated's Peter King that he made individual payments to teammates for performance-related bonuses such as interceptions and fumble recoveries.) "Scott Fujita never put up any money to injure anybody," Shanle insisted on Wednesday. "It didn't happen."
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Hargrove, according to the NFL's statement and White's conversation with reporters, provided a signed declaration to the league which acknowledged the existence of a bounty program and his role in it. It is believed that Hargrove's declaration is the key to the NFL's case – but, because the league has not released it to the suspended players or to the public, none of us can be sure what was said and how credible it is.
Given that the players are planning, with the assistance of the NFLPA, to appeal to Goodell (good luck with that) – and reportedly may initiate legal challenges in federal court – the league may eventually have to show its hand. Until then, the commissioner is essentially saying, "They're guilty – take my word for it."
To me, that's not good enough, for a number of reasons:
• We have yet to be presented with evidence of an obvious instance of a Saints opponent during the 2009, '10 or '11 seasons sustaining an injury from an unsportsmanlike or inordinately vicious hit – or of any failed attempt to inflict such an injury.
• White isn't really independent, given that she was, you know, paid by the NFL for her services. Not surprisingly, the NFLPA's outside counsel, former prosecutor Richard Smith, had a much different assessment of the league's evidence and essentially dismissed her expertise on the issue. I'm not saying Smith's perspective carries any more authority than White's; I'm simply pointing out that there is a serious disagreement between the two sides on the most important issue – whether there's any real evidence of a pay-for-injure scheme.
• Smith referenced Joe Hummel, the NFL's director of investigations, who abruptly resigned last Friday. Hummel, who was heavily involved in the bounty probe, left for what NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told profootballtalk.com was "a big career opportunity," but the timing of his departure certainly seemed fishy to men being investigated and those advocating for their interests.
• These were not insignificant penalties. Middle linebacker Vilma, who was suspended for the entire 2012 season, is 30 years old with a history of knee problems. For him, this could amount to a career-ending punishment. Smith, who turns 31 in July, Hargrove, who'll be 29 the same month, and Fujita, 33, could face similarly daunting consequences after they return from their respective suspensions. In theory, Smith (four games), Hargrove (eight games) and Fujita (three games) could be waived by the Saints, Packers and Browns, respectively, after serving their suspensions if their employers are satisfied that the younger, cheaper stand-ins are performing capably. Subsequently, the punished players' affiliation with the bounty scandal could cause them to be blackballed by other teams as well.
For now, I'm trying very hard to be level-headed about all of this. While the NFL, which is facing numerous lawsuits from former players alleging that the league didn't do enough to prevent head trauma, has a vested economic interest in making a conspicuous statement demonstrating its support for player safety, I also believe that Goodell sincerely wants to address the issue.
My suspicion is that Wednesday's tragic death of future Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau, a suicide which may prove to be linked to the perilous effects of concussions, will increase the commissioner's sense of urgency to create a safer working environment.
[ Jason Cole: Lawsuit could allow Jonathan Vilma toplay in 2012 ]
So no, I don't think Goodell is a self-serving liar with a God complex. And when the league announced the suspensions of Payton, Loomis, Williams and Vitt, I laughed off the vitriolic reactions from Saints fans who screamed that the franchise was being singled out by a vindictive commissioner as being myopic and naïve.
Now, however, I'm having conversations with men who've actually played for the Saints during that span, and they're expressing similar sentiments. The absence of conspicuous evidence in the public realm makes me hesitant to dismiss them out of hand.
Is Goodell trying to stick it to the Saints?
"It's hard not to feel that way," Shanle said. "When you look at the severity of the suspensions and the lack of hard evidence, it's kind of tough to take. All there is is hearsay. And I feel badly for Jonathan Vilma and the other suspended players, because I feel like they were made an example of. And I just hate how it's almost like everybody is guilty until proven innocent."
And how does Shanle explain the Williams audio tape and the exhortations to injure opponents?
"Guys say crazy things all the time," Shanle said. "Gregg is one of the greatest motivators I've been around, but when he says things like 'kill the head and the body will die,' people don't take it literally. It was more of a device to get guys in a frame of mind to play a violent game at an insanely high level of intensity. It takes you to a place mentally that guys can't go otherwise.
"It's the same with Vilma. If he made statements like that, it was about trying to get guys to play harder and more together than they ever knew they could.
"Let's think about it rationally: If there's $500 in a kitty for taking out [an opponent], do you think I'm gonna intentionally injure someone and risk a $75,000 fine from the league for an illegal hit? It makes no sense."
It's a valid question, and I don't profess to have the answer. At this point, there are a lot of unanswered questions, and they're bringing out my inner Rod Tidwell.
If Goodell is devoted to improving and possibly saving the sport – and I believe he is – I'm ready to do my part for the cause. When it comes to cracking down on coaches whose instructions to injure opponents may or may not be taken literally, and when evidence of such is subsequently broadcast to the masses, the commissioner's swift and severe punishment makes a lot of sense.
So far, I'm not convinced that Vilma, Hargrove, Smith and Fujita's lengthy suspensions were similarly warranted. And before those players turn in their playbooks and fork over the cash, I'd feel a lot better if someone would show me the money.
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