Browns linebacker Scott Fujita has been fighting for his reputation since May 2 when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended him three games and publicly accused him of contributing money to a pool that allegedly paid his former New Orleans Saints teammates for intentionally injuring opposing players.
Although Fujita’s name hasn’t been entirely cleared in the Saints’ bounty scandal, significant progress was made in that vein Tuesday. In a letter from Goodell to Fujita that was released by the league, Goodell conceded, “I have not found that you directly contributed to the bounty pool.”
Goodell reduced Fujita’s suspension to one game and put the ban into effect Tuesday, about a month after a three-member appeals panel lifted the original suspensions of Fujita and the other three players punished in the case.
The league also reduced defensive end Anthony Hargrove’s eight-game suspension 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 reply to an email from the Beacon Journal seeking comment.
In response to the re-issued 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.”
Fujita, who played for the Saints from 2006-09 before signing with the Browns in 2010, repeatedly denied the allegations the league made in May, insisting he paid former teammates for big plays like sacks and interceptions but not for trying to hurt opposing players.
Fujita met with Goodell Sept. 28 at the league’s headquarters in New York to discuss the case. 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.
Ultimately, Goodell conceded he hasn’t been able to prove otherwise. Still, he used Fujita’s admission that he paid teammates for performance, but not injuries, as justification for a one-game sentence.
“You paid or offered to pay teammates for ‘big plays’ such as forced fumbles or sacks,” Goodell wrote. “As you described the payments at our recent meeting, they were entirely independent of [former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg] 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. … 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.”
Goodell also took Fujita to task for allegedly endorsing a bounty pool.
“Your own comments confirm that players were encouraged to ‘crank up the John Deere tractor and cart those guys off’ the playing field,” Goodell wrote. “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.”
Although Fujita’s suspension was lifted in time for him to play in Week 1, he sat out while coming off a left knee injury he suffered Aug. 10 in the preseason opener. He appeared in each of the past four games, playing 42 percent of the defensive snaps. He has tallied 14 tackles and a sack this season.
If Fujita misses a game because of his updated suspension, it will cost him $214,705, and rookie James-Michael Johnson would likely fill Fujita’s role as the strongside linebacker in the base defense.
The Browns waived defensive end Marcus Benard from injured reserve Tuesday. Benard dislocated his left elbow Aug. 24 and had spent all season on IR.
Benard led the Browns with 7½ sacks in 2010. He compiled 39 tackles, including 11½ sacks, in 25 games with the team. Benard spent this past summer fighting for a roster spot after missing most of last season with injuries suffered in a motorcycle accident in October 2011.
The Browns also cut linebacker Benjamin Jacobs from their practice squad. Last season, he appeared in five games with the team.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com.browns.abj