NFL must show evidence today for Monday's hearing against New Orleans Saints defenders
Things began to heat up Thursday as the appeals hearing for the four suspended New Orleans Saints players looms Monday.
The NFL must provide evidence today -- three calendar days prior -- to the players. That requirement, however, isn't one that will set off celebrations or alarms among the Who Dat faithful, because the league is under no obligation to make public its whole case, just what it plans to employ at Monday's hearing in New York.
The NFL has acknowledged it does not have evidence proving former New Orleans Saints player Scott Fujita pledged money toward a specific bounty on any particular player.
Still, that did not stop the players union or attorneys for suspended Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma from aggressively seeking as much evidence as they could before they plead with Commissioner Roger Goodell. In formal letters and interviews, the appellants urged the NFL to be as forthcoming as possible.
In addition, the NFLPA asked Goodell to "compel" the attendance Monday of coaches and executives who have been mentioned in relation to or suspended for their alleged involvement in the bounty scheme the NFL says the Saints ran on defense from 2009 to 2011.
In other developments, sources said Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis rejected a request from the union that the club issue some statement of support for the players. And they said the semantic gulf between "bounty," with all its creepy connotations, and a less sinister "pay for performance" system also came into sharp relief, when the NFLPA highlighted the fact the NFL acknowledged having no evidence former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita ever put a "bounty" on any specific player.
First, though, came the request about the coaches. In a letter to Goodell, the union wrote,
"We write to memorialize the players' position that the NFL must compel the attendance of the following individuals at the hearing:
1. Sean Peyton [sic]
2. Gregg Williams
3. Joe Vitt
4. Mickey Loomis
5. Blake Williams
6. Michael Cerullo
7. Joe Hummel
8. Jeff Miller."
There was no immediate response Thursday from the coaches -- some of them, like Cerullo, a one-time Saints assistant whom many have publicly fingered as one of the league's original sources for information in the bounty matter (something never confirmed by Cerullo or the NFL), are no longer involved in the NFL. Others, Payton and Williams most noticeably, are currently serving suspensions imposed by Goodell.
Goodell imposed unprecedented harsh discipline on New Orleans as a result of the so-called bounty investigation. Payton and Vilma have been suspended without pay for the entire 2012 season, Loomis for eight games, acting head coach Joe Vitt for six games, and Williams from professional football indefinitely. The Saints were also hit with a $500,000 fine and the loss of a second-round pick last April and another pick in the 2013 draft.
NFL: We have Fujita evidence
Meanwhile, while the NFL has acknowledged it does not have evidence proving Fujita "pledged money toward a specific bounty on any particular player," it does have evidence showing Fujita, now with the Browns, pledged, "a significant amount of money" to a 2009 playoff pool that included "cart-off" and "knock-out" hits, according to the league.
The shading of Fujita's involvement was included in a May 2 letter the NFL sent to the linebacker. In that letter, which the NFLPA quoted in its own letter to Goodell on Thursday asking the league to make available all evidence it had backing up its charge, the league does claim it has the goods on Fujita for what the NFL has characterized as deliberately injurious play -- a characterization Saints players and coaches still dispute.
"You pledged a significant amount of money to the pool during the 2009 NFL Playoffs," the league wrote Fujita. "While the evidence does not establish that you pledged money toward a specific bounty on any particular player, the 'pool' to which you pledged that money paid large cash rewards for 'cart-offs' and 'knockouts.' "
In its press release, however, the NFL stressed only the second part of that equation.
"The record established that Fujita, a linebacker, pledged a significant amount of money to the prohibited pay-for-performance/bounty pool during the 2009 NFL Playoffs when he played for the Saints," the NFL release read. "The pool to which he pledged paid large cash rewards for 'cart-offs' and 'knockouts,' plays during which an opposing player was injured."
League can hold back
Saints fans seized on the actual breakdown in Fujita's alleged involvement as evidence the linebacker was slimed -- a situation that, if true, could extend to the other players.
The collective bargaining agreement calls for the evidence the NFL plans to deploy Monday to be available to the other side three calendar days prior to the hearing, meaning Friday in this case. However, the league has no obligation to release its entire case. The NFL has repeatedly said it amassed some 5,000 documents and confirmed the key charges through, "multiple, independent sources" -- but only what it will present Monday needs to be turned over.
Fujita, Smith and Hargrove will be represented at that hearing by NFLPA attorneys; Vilma reportedly will be represented by Peter Ginsberg, the lead attorney in the federal defamation lawsuit Vilma filed against Goodell in New Orleans.
In Hargrove's case, the NFL wrote him the following:
"The vast majority of your eight-game suspension was attributable to your lying to the investigators and your obstruction of the investigation. The balance was attributable to your active participation in the program by pledging and contributing money to the pool from which, as you were aware, payments were offered and made for 'knock-outs' and 'cart-offs' of opposing players."
Here, too, the NFLPA has asked for all relevant information and here, too, there is no mention of Hargrove targeting a specific opponent or putting a "bounty" on a particular player.
"(T)he record establishes that you assisted Coach Williams in establishing and funding the program during a period in which you were a captain and leader of the defensive unit," the NFL wrote. "More disturbing, multiple sources confirm that you pledged significant sums during the 2009 playoffs toward the program pool for cart-offs and knockouts of Saints' opposing players."
Case is 'a sham'
The players' union also asked Thursday that the NFL follow what would fall under the Brady Law in a criminal matter, meaning the league should provide, "potentially exculpatory information," too.
Sources on the appellant side took two views of the latest situation. The first was that, by freezing out all sides and failing to make the union a partner in a matter the league insists has player safety at its core, the entire Saints disciplinary case has become "a sham," as one league source put it.
Vilma's attorney Ginsberg was even more pointed.
"I'm convinced the league has not produced its evidence because there is no evidence to support its findings and accusations against Jonathan," he said.
Something even less than Ginsberg's position was asked of the Saints' organization by the NFLPA, according to a league source. At some point in the past two months, the union approached the club about issuing a statement or a declaration that was described as saying the NFL's accusations don't square with the integrity of the Saints' players, or that the league has twisted the information it did obtain out of recognizable context.
Loomis declined to do so, the source said, and Loomis did not respond to an email Thursday asking about the request.
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