The NFL Players Association said on Friday that it would study the NFL’s report regarding the bounty system utilized by the Saints for three years. Five days later, the NFLPA announced that it will conduct its own investigation.
For now, the NFLPA accuses the Saints coaches of engaging in “improper and coercive” activities, in violation of the CBA. To confirm that, the union will attempt to interview “members of New Orleans Saints management and coaching staff that were employed by the club in 2009, 2010 and 2011.”
It’s a smart move. The NFL’s investigative techniques are, at times, suspect. Faced with the prospect of having to let the world know that one or more of its teams from time to time cheats, the NFL often seems inclined to sweep things under the rug.
Consider, for example, the fact that the NFL investigated in 2010 the allegations that the Saints used a bounty system, and got nowhere. How aggressively or thoroughly did the NFL push it the first time around? Based on some of the tampering investigations that have been conducted in the past, there’s a good chance that the league office intended only to let the Saints know that they should quit doing whatever they were doing. (Of course, if that was the goal, the NFL failed miserably.)
To the extent that Commissioner Roger Goodell hopes to get conclusive input from the NFLPA regarding the penalties to be meted out due to the bounty system, Goodell may have to wait longer than he’d like. The NFLPA acknowledges that the league’s investigation unfolded “over the course of many months,” and the NFLPA has asked the league for “sufficient time to complete our internal review as counsel to the players.”
Balanced against the NFLPA’s desire to take an independent look at the evidence of wrongdoing that the league discovered is the union’s obligation to represent the interests of players who were targeted for injury — and those who participated in the targeting. Indeed, the NFLPA has not yet concluded that players willingly participated in the bounty-related activities, despite findings from the league that seem to suggest otherwise. “If the facts prove that players voluntarily and willingly participated in conduct that jeopardized health and safety, we will work with them and the league to put in place additional safeguards to prevent this in the future,” the statement reads.
The only unfortunate aspect of the statement appears in the second paragraph, where the NFLPA asserts that “[u]ntil the facts are known, judgment based on reports in the media is speculative.” This ignores the reality that the NFL already has concluded that the Saints maintained a bounty system for three years. Though the NFLPA may disagree with some of the facts (especially those relating to voluntary player involvement, such as linebacker Jonathan Vilma offering $10,000 to whoever knocks Brett Favre out of the NFC title game), the reports in the media come from reports generated by the league, and that information hardly constitutes speculation.
Moving forward, the biggest challenge for the NFLPA and the former litigator who leads it will be to resist the temptation to take an adversarial posture, blaming the Saints for everything and the players for nothing. While that approach is perfectly suited to a court of law, the implementation of such a strategy in the court of public opinion will serve only to make fans and the media believe that the players are failing to take responsibility for their role in this mess.
The NFL and the NFLPA have a shared problem. They need to work toward a shared solution, not one that will pick an unnecessary fight between management and labor.