NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell reduced Browns linebacker Scott Fujita’s three-game suspension for his alleged role in the New Orleans Saints’ bounty scandal to one game, the league announced today.
The league also reduced the eight-game suspension it levied against defensive end Anthony Hargrove to seven games and credited him for the five games he has missed as a free agent. Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma remains suspended for the season, and Saints defensive end Will Smith’s four-game ban was not altered.
The players can appeal the suspensions. Fujita did not immediately reply to an e-mail from the Beacon Journal.
In response to the NFL’s discipline, the NFL Players Association released a statement.
“For more than six months, the NFL has ignored the facts, abused the process outlined in our collective bargaining agreement and failed to produce evidence that the players intended to injure anyone, ever,” the players’ union said in the statement. “The only evidence that exists is the League’s gross violation of fair due process, transparency and impartiality during this process. Truth and fairness have been the casualties of the league’s refusal to admit that it might have made a mistake.
“We will review this decision thoroughly and review all options to protect our players’ rights with vigilance.”
On May 2, the NFL originally suspended Fujita for three games and accused him of contributing money to a pool that allegedly paid his former Saints teammates for intentionally injuring opponents. Fujita, who played for the Saints from 2006-09 before signing with the Browns in 2010, has repeatedly denied the allegations, insisting he paid former teammates for big plays like sacks and interceptions but not for trying to hurt opposing players.
A three-member appeals panel lifted the suspensions of Fujita and the three other players punished in the case Sept. 7, but Goodell put them back into effect today.
Fujita met with Goodell Sept. 28 at the league’s headquarters in New York and said the meeting “went well.” Fujita submitted signed declarations from about 20 players to the NFL stating he did not contribute money to a bounty pool, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported.
In a letter to Fujita, Goodell said:
“While I have not found that you directly contributed to the bounty pool, there is no serious question that you were aware of the pool and its elements, including that it provided rewards for cart-offs. Indeed, Mr. [Jonathan] Vilma testified that Coach [Gregg] Williams brought the program to the team’s defensive leaders before the 2009 season and that you supported and endorsed it. Your own comments confirm that players were encouraged to ‘crank up the John Deere tractor and cart those guys off’ the playing field.
“I am surprised and disappointed by the fact that you, a former defensive captain and a passionate advocate for player safety, ignored such a program and permitted it to continue. You made clear to me that participation in the program was voluntary and that other players could have refused to participate, as you claim to have done. If you had spoken up, perhaps other players would have refused to participate and the consequences with which we are now dealing could have been avoided.
“I believe that everyone in the NFL, including players, has an obligation to promote fair and safe play, and to protect the integrity of the game. Your failure to act contributed to allowing this program to remain in place not only during the 2009 season, but for two additional seasons after that. There also remains the matter of your admitting to having essentially run your own rewards program, separate and apart from the program in which Coach Williams was involved, in which you paid or offered to pay teammates for ‘big plays’ such as forced fumbles or sacks. As you described the payments at our recent meeting, they were entirely independent of Coach Williams, the Club, or any Club Affiliate. As you further noted, you would pay such pledges only if the Saints won the game. This conduct is itself a violation of Article IX, Sections 9.1(c)(8) and 9.3(F) of the Constitution and Bylaws.
“I find that your violation of the rule, which protects the integrity of the game, constitutes conduct detrimental to the League. Accordingly, I have determined that you should be suspended without pay for one game. For the avoidance of doubt, none of this discipline is imposed because your offers or payments to other players were not disclosed to the League. If you had disclosed your offers or payments, they still would have violated the Constitution and Bylaws provisions discussed above and constituted conduct detrimental.”
Although the suspensions were not in effect for the Browns’ regular-season opener Sept. 9, Fujita sat out Week 1 while coming off a left knee injury he suffered Aug. 10 in the preseason opener. He has played in each of the past four games, appearing in the base defense, not the nickel package, and playing 42 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. He has tallied 14 tackles and a sack this season.
Rookie linebacker James-Michael Johnson will likely assume Fujita’s role if he misses a game because of the suspension. Johnson, a fourth-round pick in this year’s draft, was penciled in to start at strongside linebacker in Week 1, but he suffered a ribs/oblique injury Aug. 30 in the preseason finale that forced him to miss the first four games of the season. He made his NFL regular-season debut Sunday in the Browns’ 41-27 loss to the New York Giants, though he only played special teams.