NFL hears players' bounty appeals
NEW YORK -- The NFL insists it has evidence galore in the New Orleans Saints bounty program and even made some of it public on Monday. The players and lawyers involved weren't impressed.
On a strange day that included a morning adjournment of the hearings with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, followed by one of the suspended players, Jonathan Vilma, opting not to return for afternoon sessions, the league showed reporters some of the 20,000 documents it says investigators uncovered.
Among the things the league revealed: a prize of $35,000 for knocking Brett Favre out of the NFC Championship Game in January 2010.
The $35,000 offered to sideline Favre included $10,000 pledges from Vilma, former Saints defensive lineman Charles Grant and Mike Ornstein, an outsider and convicted felon the NFL says was involved in the bounty program. Assistant coach Joe Vitt pledged the other $5,000.
A video from that game shows Vitt telling defensive players on the sideline that Favre was out with a broken leg after a vicious hit. Defensive end Anthony Hargrove is shown turning to teammate Bobby McCray and saying, "Hey, Bobby, give me the money."
Hargrove was flagged and subsequently fined $5,000 for a flagrant hit on Favre, who returned to the game.
If NFL fans were told there were "weapons of mass destruction" enough times, they'd believe it. But what happens when you don't find any????” -- Tweet by Drew Brees
The league also displayed a computer slide it obtained from the Saints dating from before a playoff game against Seattle the next season, showing photos of three Seahawks with "Now it's time to do our job. Collect bounty $$$!. No apologies. Let's go hunting" printed on it.
The evidence included handwritten notes, documents from the Saints' computer system and witness testimony.
"It takes a lot of courage for people to speak up," NFL counsel Jeff Pash said. "If people want to disclose something ... whoever it is -- player, coach, former employee, staff member -- asks for protection, some sort of confidentiality, we ought to give it to them.
"Otherwise, people will not be willing to come forward."
First to come forward was then-Minnesota coach Brad Childress, who heard of a bounty on Favre in the championship game from a player.
"A lot of people are taking a hit here, starting with the NFL," Pash added. "Does anybody think this is how we wanted to spend the offseason after the year we had in 2011?
"But this came to us, and we had the responsibility to address it, and in a way that was fair to everyone involved."
The suspended players don't see it that way.
Vilma, who is suspended for the 2012 season for his role in the bounty program, and current Browns linebacker Scott Fujita (three games) spoke of their frustration. Hargrove, now with Green Bay and suspended eight games, and DE Will Smith (four games), did not comment.
Vilma left his session after about an hour Monday morning, vowing not to return.
The linebacker's attorney, Peter Ginsberg, called the hearing "a sham" and said Goodell failed to present the evidence on which he based his decision to impose Vilma's penalty.
"Roger Goodell has taken three months to tear down what I built over eight years. It's tough to swallow. I have been linked to a bounty, and it simply is not true," said Vilma, who also is suing the commissioner for defamation. "I don't know how I can get a fair process when he is the judge, jury and executioner. You're assuming it will be fair, but it's not."
Fujita spoke after the second set of meetings with Goodell.
"The NFL's investigation has been highlighted by sensationalized headlines and unsubstantiated leaks to the media. I have yet to see anything that implicates me ... not in the last three months and not today," Fujita said. "The NFL has been careless and irresponsible, and at some time will have to provide answers."
The NFL Players Association released a statement Monday afternoon providing links to 16 exhibits the league planned to use against the players in the hearing. The NFLPA said the documentation, which includes ledgers of payouts, power-point slides that include phrases such as "bounty $$$" and emails, "can hardly be characterized as hard evidence."
NFLPA outside counsel Richard Smith also released a statement Monday afternoon criticizing Goodell and the league's investigation. In the statement, Smith charges the NFL with running a "sloppy investigation" and withholding evidence from the players while using the media "to support the discipline and tarnish the reputations of players before any hearing ..."
"In this matter, the conduct of the Commissioner and his representatives has undermined the fundamental process contemplated by the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Through this abuse, these players have been denied any semblance of due process and fairness.
"At a time when some question the safety and integrity of the game, the failure by those charged to act responsibly and fairly have challenged our collective faith and confidence in the league," Smith said in the statement.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees also questioned the NFL's evidence, posting his thoughts to Twitter on Monday night.
He wrote: "If NFL fans were told there were 'weapons of mass destruction' enough times, they'd believe it. But what happens when you don't find any????"
Pash believes that plenty of answers were provided to the players before Monday's hearing and during it. He said Goodell will "hold the record open" until at least the end of Friday for the players to respond to the evidence.
Saints Bounty Scandal
An NFL investigation found the New Orleans Saints operated a bounty system that rewarded 22 to 27 players for hard hits and for injuring opposing players. Profile »
One document showed Vilma offering "two five-stacks," or $10,000, to knock out Favre in the title game, which the Saints won, leading to their Super Bowl victory over Indianapolis in February 2010. The NFL said several people, including Saints coaches, confirmed Vilma's offer.
"We offered the attorneys and players opportunities to comment, and they declined to do so," Pash said.
Pash added that Ginsberg referred to an independent investigation conducted by the NFL Players Association, "and we invited them to share it, but they did not."
What the NFL shared Monday also included former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who ran the bounty program, admitting to investigators he "rolled the dice with player safety and someone could have been maimed."
Williams has been suspended indefinitely by Goodell, while Saints head coach Sean Payton is gone until after the Super Bowl. Vitt, the interim replacement for Payton, will begin a six-game suspension when the regular season starts. Saints general manager Mickey Loomis is suspended for eight games once the season begins.
Several other players' names appear in the evidence, including safety Roman Harper and linebacker Scott Shanle. Neither was punished by Goodell because those players were not linked to any intent-to-injure hits.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.
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