The NFL bounty wrangling continues and now heads to court.
The NFL Players Association filed a lawsuit Thursday on behalf of three players suspended for their alleged roles in a pay-to-injure plan in New Orleans — including Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita. The suit calls commissioner Roger Goodell “incurably and evidently biased.”
This suit came after Goodell said thanks but no thanks when Fujita and the other players appealed their suspensions. (And surely you don’t think for a second Fujita’s decision to open the meeting by shaking hands with the head of the league and saying, “What the hell are you doing, Roger?” had anything to do with the appeal being denied.)
The NFLPA’s suit called the league’s investigation and arbitration process “a sham” and referred to Goodell’s “public relations machinery” in burying the players.
That machinery has definitely been in place and functioning, but whether the players union can gain in a lawsuit what it surrendered at the bargaining table remains to be seen. That approach has not worked to date.
The entire bounty situation might be weighing on the public, but the players, understandably, feel it important to defend themselves and their reputations.
Especially Fujita, who has denied taking part in the bounty program and is defending himself even though no hard and fast evidence has been presented to him, the media or the public about why he was suspended. The league’s charge came in a letter accusing him with something he said he did not do: pledging significant amounts to the alleged pay-to-injury bounty pool run by then-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams in 2009.
Fujita said he never contributed to a pay-to-injure pool, or to any pool, for that matter. He said he only individually rewarded teammates for big plays — forced fumbles, interceptions, sacks.
In denying the appeal, the NFL said the players failed to provide any evidence proving their innocence. Instead, Goodell wrote, they merely brought up “jurisdictional and procedural objections that generally ignored the CBA.”
Fujita’s point is that it’s impossible to present evidence to prove something didn’t happen, that it was the league’s role to prove it did happen, and it did not.
Now the players and their union go to court.
What to make of it all is genuinely confusing, because the two sides have been about as polarized as two sides can be.
But a few things are clear:
• The implication that Fujita took part in a pay-to-injure scheme goes completely contradictory to everything he’s stood for in his career. Fujita has been an advocate of player safety and, in public and private, has expressed dismay at some of the pervasive culture in the NFL that celebrates big hits. He is not a dirty player, never has been. He has always been deeply involved in the communities in which he’s played, and his dedication to friend and former teammate Steve Gleason, who has ALS, has been as moving and impressive a story as the NFL has had for years. But instead of being celebrated for what he has done for and with Gleason, Fujita has spent part of his offseason defending himself against the league’s charges.
• Fujita is in the position of having to prove a negative, which is next to impossible. The league has accused him of something, saying it has reams of evidence, yet has not produced it because it wants to protect those who came forward about the bounty program. Fujita finds himself in the position of proving that something did not happen, which is very difficult.
• If players don’t like that Goodell is judge and jury — he decides on suspensions and appeals — they need only go back to the 10-year agreement they signed with the league. As the financial numbers were agreed to in the deal, one of the last remaining issues was fighting Goodell’s powerful role. Instead of fighting, the players caved.
• Will Fujita’s suspension matter to the Browns? He is a good player, a great teammate and a valuable guy. But he has also missed significant parts of the past two seasons. In 10 games last season, Fujita made 50 tackles, no sacks and one interception. When he was out, Chris Gocong and Kaluka Maiava played. They suffered through Ray Rice’s 200-yard game but fared decently after. Maiava finished his six games with 34 tackles and was part of an impressive goal-line stand in Pittsburgh that set up that infamous hit on Colt McCoy. But the Browns were 4-6 when Fujita started, 0-6 when he didn’t.