The four players implicated in the Saints bounty scandal are in a kind of limbo, as their suspension appeals make their way through through federal court, as well as the league's CBA-mandated appeals process. The latest movement comes in a Louisiana District Court, where yesterday the NFLPA filed papers suggesting that the NFL not only knew about previous cash-for-hits programs, but publicly said they were A-OK. The only difference between then and now? The league wasn't in the middle of the PR nightmare of concussions and head trauma.
The filing is below, with the good stuff on Page 8. In January of 1996, ESPN aired a segment on a Packers bounty program administered by Reggie White. "Smash-for-Cash" paid out $500 for big hits, and was originally funded by the entire team, but had paid out so much by the playoffs that White and DE Sean Jones contributed to keep it going.
The ESPN report also cited similar programs around the league, including one in Philadelphia that Troy Vincent was more than happy to discuss on camera. The most damning thing in the segment was the response, from an unnamed NFL spokesman:
"The 'Smash-for-Cash' program is within the rules as long as players use their own monies, the amounts are not exorbitant, and the payments are not for illegal hits."
There's more. The NFLPA's court filing also cites a 1996 AP article that fleshes out some of the details of White's program.
"I gave them money for big hits,'' White said, explaining how he spent his entire $13,000 game check to reward players $500 apiece for big hits in Green Bay's playoff win over San Francisco. "I don't know if the money is any more motivation, but I know I paid out a lot."
The article adds that the Packers had been giving out cash bonuses for big plays and big hits since 1994. And once again, the NFL gave a statement explicitly condoning the program.
Greg Aiello, an NFL spokesman, said there was nothing wrong with what White did, likening it to a quarterback buying gifts for his offensive linemen.
News stories from 1996 are good at highlighting the league's hypocrisy, but they've also got a solid legal purpose. Recall that Scott Fujita was originally suspended three games, accused of contributing to the Saints bounty pool. As part of his initial defense, Fujita produced 20 signed declarations from teammates that he did not. That suspension was overturned by an appeals panel, but a month later Roger Goodell re-suspended the players—in Fujita's case, reducing it to one game. This time, there was no claim that Fujita took part in the team bounty pool. Instead, in a letter to Fujita, Goodell claimed Fujita had independently offered his own money for hits, and cited specific rules prohibiting 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.
Let's check those rules. Section 9.1(c)(8) says no player shall "offer or pay a player or coach, and no player or coach may receive any bonus, money, or thing of value, for winning any game played in the League." 9.3(F) says pretty much the same thing.
The NFLPA's point, raised in the filing, is that it would be wrong to punish Fujita under the same rules that the league chose not to enforce against White and other players who openly rewarded big hits.
The fact that the NFL has a different agenda today than it did in 1996 cannot change the unequivocal language of the NFL Constitution & Bylaws, which has never prohibited this type of behavior. The Commissioner's attempt to nonetheless suspend and scapegoat Mr. Fujita for conduct – incentivizing undisputed, legitimate plays – never before punished or prohibited by the NFL not only violates the "essence of the agreement" but further demonstrates the Commissioner's evident partiality.
Of course it's all about the timing. The league knew about, and didn't care about bounty programs, back in the days when nobody cared about concussions. But now, facing lawsuits from hundreds of retired players, and safety concerns from parents, players and fans at all levels of the game, the Saints bounty scandal is barely about standing up for the game's integrity, and all about the opportunity for some masterful PR. It's been said that lots of teams have some sort of bounty program, the Saints just had the misfortune of getting caught. That's not strictly true, as we know the league has been aware of others in the past. The Saints just had the misfortune of getting caught now, at a time the league could really use a scapegoat for more fundamental problems.