The NFL has a real problem on its hands. Actually it has several, including stadium fights and that whole concussion thing, but the more immediate problem is their handling of the player discipline in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal. The St. Louis Rams have been sucked into the whole drama quite by accident, sort of, after Jeff Fisher hired Gregg Williams to be his defensive coordinator.
Greg Williams has been quiet since news of the scandal first broke. What can he say? The league reserved the harshest punishment in the whole thing for him, an indefinite suspension, and if he ever wants so much as a chance to get back into the league, he has to serve his time on Corsica with a smile.
Last week, the league doled out punishments to players involved in the bounty program, suspending four including linebacker Jonathan Vilma for the entire season. The NFL maintains overwhelming evidence against the players and others involved, but nobody outside the NFL investigators, have seen any of it.
A Monday report in the New Orleans Times-Picayune focusing on Anthony Hargrove's signed statement, a confession if you will, had this tidbit about Williams and some potential problems with the league's handling of the investigation. Hat tip to Pro Football Talk for catching it.
"[A]ccording to a source close to [former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg] Williams, the NFL has also misrepresented what Williams said in interviews with the league. According to the source, Williams never admitted a ‘bounty program' was in place and that the league ‘rephrased his statements to satisfy its needs.' The source also said Williams never identified any players for their involvement in a pay-for-performance or bounty program."
That makes it sound like the NFL handled its investigation like a pack of crocked cops, hearkening back to the horror stories of forced confessions in a dimly light corner of a Brooklyn precinct house 60 years ago.
Williams was hung for sure with the release of Sean Pamphilon's audio recording of his rant prior to last season's division playoff game against the 49ers.
Nevertheless, the league is predicating some pretty serious punishments on evidence only a few people have seen, and none of the people actually being charged or the labor organization that represents them.
On the Wednesday night prior to the draft in New York City, I attended the NFLPA Debut event, where I, along with a handful of other reporters, had the chance to talk with George Atallah, the NFLPA vice president for external affairs. He expressed serious concerns over the due process of the bounty investigation and punishments, which had not been handed down at that time.
Here's what Atallah said to us about the bounty investigation:
Not as open as we'd like them to be. You've heard me say repeatedly, and you've heard D [executive director DeMaurice Smith] say repeatedly ... that if they are alleging something as serious as they are, each individual player should have the ability to understand what evidence there is against them. That's what happens in the quote-unqute real world, and that's what we believe should happen in this world.
When the NFL first handed down the player suspensions last week, it looked like just another league-union squabble, especially since one of the players, Hargrove, had actually signed an admission of participating in the bounty program.
The league went so far as to roll out Mary Jo White, a former federal prosecutor who helped take down John Gotti and the 1993 World Trade Center bombers, to publicly state just how airtight the league's case was in the bounty investigation. The Williams revelation in the Times-Picayune suggests otherwise.
Vilma's lawyer requested a slew of documents, evidence, in filing for an appeal. It's the kind of information that would be vital for conducting a proper appeal, even under the boundaries of the process agreed to by the NFLPA and the NFL in the 2011 collective bargaining agreement.
Without a doubt, a pay-to-injure program is a real problem for the league, something that threatens its competitiveness and, by default, its mass market appeal. In the interests of handling this the right way and moving on from it, a little transparency would go along way in establishing the fairness of the punishments merited out as well as establishing clear boundaries for preventing something like from happening again.