As the bounty case continues to bounce back and forth between simmer and full boil, a strong undercurrent of discontent continues to linger among the ranks of the men who still play for the Saints organization.
According to Mike Freeman of CBSSports.com, multiple unnamed members of the team privately have complained about the situation.
“Everyone in the bounty case is being railroaded,” one unnamed Saints player told Freeman. “I can’t believe this is happening.”
Freeman explains that the common message from the several Saints players with whom he spoke is that the league doesn’t have actual proof of a bounty system and that, if the league did, the evidence would be released publicly. It’s hardly an unreasonable suspicion, given that the two pieces of evidence that actually have made their way into the hands of the media (the Anthony Hargrove declaration and the Mike Ornstein email) arguably were mischaracterized by the NFL.
Additional player concerns are identified by Freeman in four other bullet points:
1. Players who claim they have seen the letters from the NFL to coach Sean Payton, former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, assistant head coach Joe Vitt, and G.M. Mickey Loomis contend that the correspondence suggests that talking about the case could make the suspensions even longer.
2. Players claim that Williams never admitted to an actual bounty program, that he didn’t write the statement confessing responsibility for a pay-for-performance system, and that he agreed to whatever the NFL proposed in order to have a shot at returning to the game. (Of course, if the last two points are true, then logic suggests that Williams’ statement would have included a confession to the existence of a bounty program.)
3. Players contend that the punishment imposed on four members of the Saints defense from 2009 through 2011 was enhanced due to the comments from Williams that were tape-recorded the night before the Saints-49ers playoff game.
4. Players believe that the Saints were “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” With past lying from the coaches about, at a minimum, the existence of a pay-for-performance system, a strong desire by the league to turn the page on a culture of bounties, and Williams’ cartoonish remarks, the NFL had no choice but to slam the Saints’ players.
“It’s been well-documented that [Williams] had a similar pay-for-performance system at other places he’s coached,” one player close to the investigation told Freeman. “So now players are being punished for just the dumb luck of being in New Orleans at a time when such a culture was present, and also at a time when the league needs to take a hard stance on such behavior for perception and liability reasons. There might be anecdotal evidence of a few players saying some over-the-top sh-t to mirror their coach. I’ve heard players threaten rape and sodomy in pregame speeches. Immature? Yes. But actually paying and accepting money to injure? Nope.”
The league continues to refuse to produce raw evidence of the existence of a bounty program, arguing that all witnesses should be given full protection from any disclosure of their names — a skewed, unrealistic interpretation of the duties that an organization owes to a whistleblower. And that’s one of the reasons why Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma has sued Commissioner Roger Goodell for defamation. Not only will Goodell be required, at some point, to prove that the accusations against Vilma are true by disclosing evidence of guilt, but Vilma’s lawyer also will be able to use the lawsuit as a vehicle to explore, to scrutinize, and to challenge the investigation.
Perhaps the league has plenty of evidence to support that there truly was a bounty system. Until the league chooses to find a way to make enough of that evidence available to make the rest of us believe that a bounty system actually existed, suspicions reasonably will persist.