As I’ve stated in previous columns, the whole “Bountygate” thing is, and already has been, blown out of proportion. Furthermore, I’ve already stated that the punishment handed down to Saints head coach Sean Payton (suspended for an entire season) is over the top. So you can imagine my reaction when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell handed out his most recent set of punishments to the players that were involved in the so-called bounty program. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma was thrown out of the league for an entire season without pay; former Saints defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, who is now in Green Bay, was suspended for eight games; defensive end Will Smith got four games; and former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita, who is now with the Browns, was suspended for four games.
I would say an eight-game suspension would get the point across that the league wants no one to be a part of some sort of bounty incentive program, so I guess I am OK with the punishments Hargrove, Smith and Fujita were handed. But for Vilma? An entire season without pay? It’s way too harsh of a penalty, and it’s worse than Payton’s punishment in that coaches can coach until their 75 years old. Vilma only has a few playing years left in him, and to take one of those years away is huge.
But I’m not here to focus on the punishments but rather the process (or lack of process) that follows once a punishment has been handed down.
Like Payton, Vilma is going to appeal his suspension to the league, which basically means he’s going to appeal his suspension to Goodell – the man who handed the punishment down in the first place. Doesn’t that sound kind of weird? Why even appeal the suspension if somebody else isn’t going to hear his case? Does Goodell switch offices when this happens? Does he remove himself from his “Commissioner’s Office” on the top floor of NFL headquarters and go three floors down to his “Appeals Office” to hear from the likes of Vilma, Payton and the rest of NFL’s worst-case scumbags?
OK, so maybe Goodell hearing an appeal for a one or two or three-game suspension isn’t that big of a deal, but when he suspends coaches and players for an entire season, which in Vilma’s case equals around $2 million in lost wages, perhaps someone else should be included in the appeal as well. As it is right now, there is no way to defend yourself in the NFL when punishments are handed down, and this “Bountygate” scandal is making that very apparent. It’s a problem the NFL players union is trying to fight with the help of an arbitrator.
We don’t know for sure if this bounty system was in place in New Orleans. Vilma believes the NFL doesn’t have the proof that such a system was in place. Apparently Goodell has thousands of documents and items that support the NFL’s assertion that Vilma was a ringleader in the bounty system and offered up $10,000 to the player that took out quarterbacks Kurt Warner and Brett Favre when the Saints faced them. In preparing for his upcoming appeal, Vilma on Monday asked Goodell to let him (and his attorney Peter Ginsberg) see the 17 different types of evidence the NFL has against him and wants to see the names of the people the NFL interviewed as part of its investigation.
Now the NFL doesn't want to release the names of those interviewed because that could identify the whistleblower in all of this. While I think this is understandable, these are some pretty harsh punishments to not identify who’s handing over all the supposed evidence. Is this really a witness protection agency-style investigation where the whistleblower needs to go live anonymously in some small Arizona uranium mining town? If I were Vilma, I would certainly like to see the evidence that’s led to my suspension. I think there are questions that need to be answered. One big one is why the NFL didn’t even interview Kurt Warner in its investigation.
Talking with Dan Patrick on the Dan Patrick Show last week, Warner not only said he wasn’t interviewed by the NFL, he also said he didn’t think the Saints played dirty in a way that there was a bounty on his head. He went on to say he thought it was the Green Bay Packers that were playing some rough hits on him during a game, not the Saints. Warner opened up a whole host of questions about the NFL’s information-gathering process, and Vilma, in his defense, should be allowed to see how it has come to the conclusions it has.
The NFL, with the help of former U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White (who was retained by the league to review evidence), does not believe the players should face their accusers and told The New York Times doing so was a red herring. For Vilma and anyone else who has questions about the league’s process in this matter, this is unacceptable.
“The N.F.L. has refused to provide a single piece of evidence to us,” Ginsberg’s letter to the NFL stated in a Times report. “That approach to this serious matter was reflected in the N.F.L.’s outside counsel’s disturbing recent statement to the media that the players’ request to review and understand the alleged evidence against them is a ‘red herring.’”
Linebacker Fujita also released a statement to the Times disagreeing with the league’s process and reiterating that he’d not seen any evidence to support its findings.
We all know that Goodell is trying to make an example out of the Saints, to say that any sort of bounty program is unacceptable. Goodell is facing a lawsuit from hundreds of former players who contend the NFL doesn’t protect the health and safety of its players adequately. I understand the fact that Goodell needs to make an example of teams who have done wrong to prove to players that he has their health and safety as a top priority.
That being said, he needs to do it properly and in a fair way. It will do the NFL no good if he punishes players for things they may or may not have done. His evidence better be pretty damn good. And if it is so good, why won’t he release it to his accusers?
I believe he’s trying to make the league safer, but right now its only getting shadier.
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