When documentary filmmaker Sean Pamphilon visited NFL headquarters three weeks ago to play a much-publicized Gregg Williams audiotape, league security officials were particularly interested in a sequence in which the former New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator announced $200 rewards for "whack" hits by cornerback Roman Harper and linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar in last January's playoff victory over the Detroit Lions, Yahoo! Sports has learned.
While a league source said Dunbar, who has since signed with the St. Louis Rams, and Harper are unlikely to be subjected to disciplinary measures, the revelation was considered significant because the league viewed it as additional evidence of a bounty system that was the focus of a three-year investigation.
However, two NFL Players Association sources strongly disputed that characterization, defining a "whack" hit as a forceful yet clean and legal play by a defender, and thus a "pay-for-performance" issue that is a far less severe violation of league rules.
"A 'whack' hit isn't a hit that injures a player," insisted one defender who played for the Saints during Williams' three-year tenure as coordinator. "It's the equivalent of a 'pancake' for an offensive lineman – a clean hit that knocks a defender on his ass. Everyone who knows Gregg knows what that means."
Last January, on the night before the Saints' playoff defeat to the 49ers in San Francisco, Pamphilon attended the New Orleans' defensive team meeting at the team's hotel. The filmmaker was working on a documentary featuring retired Saints special-teams hero Steve Gleason, who is suffering from ALS and attended the meeting as a guest of the franchise.
When Pamphilon sent a copy of his audio recording of Williams' speech to Y! Sports in April, fueling the public uproar in the wake of the bounty scandal, the names and uniform numbers of Dunbar, Harper and other players were obscured in an effort to protect them from potential league discipline.
Pamphilon, as he revealed in a recent essay on his website, had consulted with Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Browns linebacker Scott Fujita – both members of the NFLPA's executive committee – before releasing the audio. He had also arranged, at Fujita's request, for the tape to be played for union officials.
While NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith and other union leaders weren't opposed to Pamphilon releasing the audio, and believed it would help them defend players (including ex-Saints defender Fujita) facing potential NFL discipline by marginalizing Williams as an out-of-control coach, the timing turned out to be incendiary: The Y! Sports story broke just hours before Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis and assistant head coach Joe Vitt arrived at league headquarters to appeal their lengthy suspensions to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. (Williams, who had since been hired as the St. Louis Rams' defensive coordinator, did not appeal his indefinite suspension, which is expected to last at least through the 2012 season.)
In the week leading up to the coaches' appeal hearing, the NFLPA, according to two knowledgeable sources, had reached out to Payton and had privately discussed the case with the suspended coach. In those discussions Payton, according to one of the sources, encouraged the union to advise players under investigation to answer questions from league officials truthfully.
From the union's point of view, according to a source, Payton's willingness to share his perspective made the timing of the audio's release regrettable, as it appeared the coach had been hung out to dry. Smith, according to Pamphilon, had also expressed reservations about the release to Fujita shortly before the story became public. The Browns linebacker then passed along that sentiment to Pamphilon, telling the filmmaker that Smith felt the surfacing of the audio shortly before the hearing "may or may not be beneficial to Sean Payton."
Payton's year-long suspension, like those of Loomis (eight games) and Vitt (six), was ultimately upheld by Goodell. However, a source close to Payton said the coach did not view the release of the audiotape as a major factor in his appeal being denied and does not blame the NFLPA for the story's unveiling.
Reached via text message, Payton declined to comment on the matter.
Pamphilon, in his recent essay, complained that an unnamed NFLPA official's statement that the union had been "somewhat disappointed" with the release of the tape was disingenuous given Brees and Fujita's interest in having it made public. The union's reluctance to burn Payton would seem to reconcile its position in that regard.
"The NFLPA has helped Sean Pamphilon in the past few years in an effort to tell the critical story of health and safety in professional football and the inspirational story of Steve Gleason," George Atallah, the NFLPA's executive director of external affairs, said Wednesday. "We have already been transparent about the fact that we were aware of his now infamous recording of Coach Gregg Williams before he made it public. We have nothing to hide, especially given that the contents of that recording are now public and were never in our possession at any time before he decided to make it public.
"The more time we spend discussing Sean's view on these matters is less time spent discussing what he was trying to accomplish by releasing the footage. The fact remains that we have seen no evidence linking players to a pay-to-injure scheme."
Brees, who declined to comment on the matter via text message, wasn't necessarily opposed to the identification of Dunbar, Harper and other Saints players on the audiotape when Pamphilon made it public, according to a source close to the quarterback. Brees' desire, the source said, was to convince Pamphilon to include an explanation of the term "whack" hit in the story, explaining that it was merely for a forceful blow without intent to injure. However, Pamphilon decided to release the audio (with names and uniform numbers of all Saints players obscured) before consulting further with Brees.
On May 2, Goodell announced the suspensions of four players for their role in the scandal, with New Orleans middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma getting shelved for an entire season. Defensive end Will Smith got a four-game suspension, while ex-Saints Anthony Hargrove, now with the Packers, and Fujita got eight and three games, respectively. Vilma, Fujita and Smith have publicly denied being part of a pay-for-injure scheme.
All four players, via the NFLPA, have challenged the suspensions, and Vilma later filed a defamation suit against Goodell resulting from the statement issued by the commissioner announcing the penalties.
Pamphilon, who had previously been asked to share the tape by an NFL security official, traveled to league headquarters a day earlier with a copy of the audiotape. He was escorted to the basement of the midtown Manhattan office building and, while sitting at a long conference table, played the tape from start to finish for NFL security chief Jeff Miller and investigator Joe Hummel, who two weeks earlier had submitted his resignation but stayed on through the conclusion of the Saints probe.
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The meeting was confirmed by NFL spokesman Greg Aiello, who said Wednesday, "A few weeks ago Mr. Pamphilon appeared at our office and offered his cooperation regarding information he wanted to share about the Saints' bounty matter. Our security staff agreed to speak with him and did so."
Hummel, according to Pamphilon, took notes throughout the meeting and was particularly interested in the section of the speech in which Williams announces payments for various defenders for achievements in the previous week's playoff victory over the Lions. When Williams tells the group that the "first envelope" will go to "JD" – who, according to Pamphilon and another person who was in the meeting, was Dunbar – the linebacker appears to refuse the money, instead putting it back into the pot for the current week's game.
"You want it?" Williams asks.
"[Expletive] no," a voice answers, as others in the room applaud.
"OK, it's $200 – you got it for a 'whack,' " Williams says. The rest of his words are drowned out by loud cheers.
Williams then singles out Harper by uniform number, saying, "41, one whack, $200." Others in the room yell, "Give it back," and Harper, like Dunbar, seems to comply – a common practice among Saints defenders.
Neither Dunbar nor Harper, through their respective agents, returned messages from Y! Sports seeking comment. It is unclear for which specific plays against the Lions the two players had been rewarded.
The sequence, Pamphilon said, was treated with significance by Hummel and Miller.
"As soon as they heard 'whack,' they looked right at each other," Pamphilon recalled. "Hummel stopped taking notes and looked up. They actually paused and put a recording device on the table right next to [mine] and played it back so they could capture it. They wanted to make sure they had it.
According to a league source, no other current or former Saints players – including Harper and Dunbar – are likely to be disciplined for their roles in the scandal, though new information could always compel the NFL to reopen the investigation.
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