Tuesday was the first of six straight days off for the New Orleans Saints but that didn’t keep them from being in the news. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell finally reaffirmed his bounty penalty decisions reducing suspensions for former Saints players but not for the current Saints players.
Linebacker Scott Fujita’s three-game suspension was reduced to just one game. Defense end Anthony Hargrove’s suspension went from eight to seven games. Fujita is currently a member of the Cleveland Browns and Hargrove was released prior to the start of the season by Green Bay and is a free agent.
Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma’s suspension remains the same, a full season suspension but he can keep the money collected during his six week stay on the team’s physically unable to perform list. Defensive end Will Smith’s suspension also remained the same, a four-game suspension.
The NFL in a statement stated that the commissioner sent letters to each player and a memorandum to the club clarifying his decision. The statement says Goodell’s decision “was based entirely on his finding that the bounty program represented conduct detrimental to the league and professional football. The Saints’ bounty program operated over a three-year period and offered incentives to players for plays including "cart-offs" and "knock-outs," which were plays that caused injuries to opponents.”
Players met with the commissioner last month and while the players hoped those meetings would help clarify their innocence, it in fact made the commissioner feel he was right all along. "In my recent meetings with the players and their counsel, the players addressed the allegations and had an opportunity to tell their side of the story," Goodell also wrote. "In those meetings, the players confirmed many of the key facts disclosed in our investigation, most particularly that the program offered cash rewards for 'cart-offs,' that players were encouraged to 'crank up the John Deere tractor' and have their opponents carted off the field, and that rewards were offered and paid for plays that resulted in opposing players having to leave the field of play."
The four players have 72 hours in which to appeal this decision and if they do then they likely will be able to continue to play until that appeal process is finished.
Players are represented by a union and the NFL Players Association released their own statement Tuesday afternoon. “For more than six months, the NFL has ignored the facts, abused the process outlined in our collective bargaining agreement and failed to produce evidence that the players intended to injure anyone, ever," the statement said. "The only evidence that exists is the League's gross violation of fair due process, transparency and impartiality during this process. Truth and fairness have been the casualties of the league's refusal to admit that it might have made a mistake."
Goodell sent a letter personally to the four players explaining his decisions. To Fujita the commissioner said:
"While I have not found that you directly contributed to the bounty pool, there is no serious question that you were aware of the pool and its elements, including that it provided rewards for cart-offs. Indeed, Mr. [Jonathan] Vilma testified that Coach [Gregg] Williams brought the program to the team's defensive leaders before the 2009 season and that you supported and endorsed it. Your own comments confirm that players were encouraged to 'crank up the John Deere tractor and cart those guys off' the playing field.
"I am surprised and disappointed by the fact that you, a former defensive captain and a passionate advocate for player safety, ignored such a program and permitted it to continue. You made clear to me that participation in the program was voluntary and that other players could have refused to participate, as you claim to have done. If you had spoken up, perhaps other players would have refused to participate and the consequences with which we are now dealing could have been avoided.
Goodell in his letter to Hargrove had this to say:
"I find that you engaged in conduct detrimental by falsely denying, when questioned by an NFL Security representative, both the existence of the Saints’ program and the pledge of a substantial payment to any member of the Saints' defensive unit who knocked Brett Favre out of the 2009 NFC Championship Game. The existence of the program has been admitted by numerous Saints coaches and players, and is plainly established by the documents obtained from the club. And, based on substantial evidence, including written declarations made under penalty of perjury by two program participants whom I find credible, I have found that a member of the Saints defensive unit made such a pledge with respect to Mr. Favre.
"My finding that you misled the NFL Security representative and obstructed the League's investigation is corroborated by your own Declaration and by numerous statements made by you in our meeting of September 18 that were themselves not credible.
"In response to a request for clarification from System Arbitrator Burbank, I previously advised you that the 'vast majority' of your discipline was based on your lack of candor to the League's investigators. So that there is no question about the basis on which discipline is being imposed, I find that your misleading a League investigator and your obstruction of the League's investigation constitute conduct detrimental to the integrity of, or public confidence in, the game of professional football."
Goodell at least reduced Fujita and Hargrove’s suspensions. As to why Will Smith didn’t get a reduction, the commish wrote to Smith this:
“At our meeting in September, you confirmed that you expressed approval of the program when it was first presented to you by Coach Williams. You also confirmed that you provided money to the program pool both at the beginning of the season and again during the playoffs. I understand that you deny that anyone intended to inflict injury on any opposing player. Even in the face of repeated appeals to 'crank up the John Deere tractor and cart the guy off,' you and others now claim that the objective was instead merely to 'knock the wind out' of your opponents, requiring them to leave the game for only a play or two.
From the standpoint of player safety, fair competition, and the integrity of the game, the issues with which I am concerned today, this kind of after-the-fact explanation is little more than wordplay that, in my judgment as Commissioner, offers no basis on which to excuse conduct that does not belong in professional football. Such behavior is conduct detrimental without regard to the precise extent or duration of the disability intended.
"Accordingly, and based on the entire record before me, I find that you endorsed and agreed to, and contributed substantial sums toward, a program that incentivized, encouraged and paid players to cause cart-offs and knockouts, plays in which an opposing player is injured or disabled and unable to continue playing, whether temporarily (cart-off) or for the remainder of the game or longer (knockout). Encouraging and rewarding cart-offs and knockouts represents an effort to cause or to seek to cause injury to and to disable opposing players, and such conduct is detrimental to the integrity of, and public confidence in, professional football, regardless of whether the hit that causes the cart-off or knockout is 'clean' or 'dirty,' i.e., subject to penalty or fine under on-field playing rules."
As for Vilma’s explanation, this is what Goodell wrote to him:
"I also find that you engaged in conduct detrimental by offering a substantial financial incentive to any member of the defensive unit who knocked Brett Favre out of the Saints' 2009 NFC playoff game against the Vikings. (There is also credible evidence that you made a similar pledge regarding Kurt Warner in the immediately preceding playoff game against the Cardinals, but whether you made multiple pledges of that kind does not matter for purposes of the discipline that I have decided to impose.)
"Both Coach Williams and Mr. [Mike] Cerullo have submitted statements under oath attesting to the fact that you made such an offer at a pre-game meeting of the Saints' defensive unit. I have personally met with both men and have had an opportunity to assess their credibility. I am not persuaded by any suggestion that either Mr. Williams or Mr. Cerullo had an incentive to testify falsely, under penalty of perjury, about such conduct by you or by any other player. With respect to Coach Williams, you and he have repeatedly spoken highly of each other, and nobody has identified any reason why he would make false charges against the Saints or you in particular. In that respect, it is telling that even though he had already left the Saints and signed a contract to be the Defensive Coordinator for the Rams, Coach Williams continued to deny the existence of the program in its entirety, and acknowledged the program and his role in it only after detailed questioning by our investigators.
"Equally important, neither Mr. Williams nor Mr. Cerullo was made aware of the substance of the information provided by the other in the investigation; as one example, each independently volunteered to investigators that the bounty that you pledged with respect to Mr. Favre was in the specific amount of $10,000.
"Furthermore, Coach [Joe] Vitt recalled that players made a number of pledges at that particular meeting and that the meeting 'got out of hand.' Mr. Fujita informed me that he believes that players made pledges of payments for 'big plays' at that meeting. Those statements support the written declarations, made under penalty of perjury, by Coach Williams and Mr. Cerullo about the events of that evening. In contrast, your statement that nothing out of the ordinary happened and that no pledges were made by anyone at that meeting is inconsistent with the information provided by other players and is simply not persuasive.
"In addition, as you know, in early 2010 a Vikings player informed Coach Childress that a Saints player had told him that a bounty had been placed on Mr. Favre. There is also video evidence that a Saints player said; 'Give me my money' immediately after Coach Vitt told the defensive unit (incorrectly) that Mr. Favre's leg had been broken and that he would not be returning to the game.
"I find, based on all of these facts and the entire record described above, that you did, in fact, pledge money to any teammate who injured or disabled Mr. Favre to an extent that he would not be able to continue playing in the playoff game. I recognize that you and some of your teammates have denied that you made such a pledge or claim not to recall your doing so, but I am persuaded, based on the entirety of the record before me, that you did so. And I find that such a pledge or any similar incentive is conduct detrimental."
The memo sent to teams also detailed additional instances in which players were targeted and in Goodell's mind contradicts the players's take that they intended to only keep a player out a play or two in a game.
"The facts, however, conclusively undermine this characterization. For example, in a game between the Saints and the New York Giants in 2009, a Saints player earned a reward for a cart-off of Giants running back Brandon Jacobs, who left the game with a shoulder injury. After a 2010 game against the Carolina Panthers, the Saints defensive unit was commended for forcing '3 CART-OFFS! 1 already placed on I.R.!' In that game, three Carolina players were seriously injured: running backs Jonathan Stewart and Tyrell Sutton, who were literally carted off the field with a head/neck and ankle injury, respectively, and quarterback Matt Moore, who was later placed on injured reserve, unable to return for the remainder of the season, with a torn labrum. These all satisfied Coach Williams' definition of cart-offs: 'big hits that resulted in an opposing player leaving the game due to the hit (for example, having the "wind knocked out of him" or being shaken up or injured in some other way)...' He added that 'rewarding cart-offs and knockouts...could encourage players to injure opposing players [and] I now understand that someone could be seriously injured as a result.”