One of the most damning bits of evidence in the NFL's case against the four players it suspended for their participation in the New Orleans Saints' bounty program, it turns out, came via the NFL Players Association.
The union released a number of documents Friday in accordance with a grievance claim in support of the four players it has filed against the NFL. One detailed that the NFLPA directly submitted to the league an April 17 statement from defensive end Anthony Hargrove. The NFL said Hargrove acknowledged lying to investigators, obstructing the NFL's inquiry and being involved in the bounty system. The union's cooperation in Hargrove's admission wasn't previously public.
"Your declaration makes clear that the program existed at the Saints and establishes that you knew about it and participated in it," Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote to Hargrove.
The NFL suspended the four players, all former or current Saints, this week after a lengthy investigation detailed their participation in organizing, funding and covering up the bounty program designed to financially reward anyone who could knock certain opponents out of games.
Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma was suspended for the entire 2012 season. Will Smith, Scott Fujita (now of Cleveland) and Hargrove (now of Green Bay) will miss parts of the year.
Hargrove's written admission, coming with the union's knowledge and at least tacit support, is part of a growing mountain of evidence of the bounty program that includes other admissions, emails, documents and physical evidence. It has already resulted in suspensions for former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (indefinitely), coach Sean Payton (one year) and general manager Mickey Loomis (eight games), plus fines, stripped draft picks and other sanctions.
Yet Friday the NFLPA pushed forward with a fight to defend the players that common sense and the NFL says were involved in a system designed to injure fellow union members.
The grievance is not claiming Goodell got it wrong and that the accused players are innocent – that would be 100 percent defensible. Instead it takes a two-point tact arguing labor procedures.
First is to claim that player behavior prior to the signing of the current collective bargaining agreement is not subject to discipline by the league.
"In connection with entering into the 2011 CBA, the NFL released all players from conduct engaged in prior to the execution of the CBA, on August 4, 2011," the complaint reads.
Second is to say that if that even if the NFL does have the right to discipline, these cases and the appeal process should fall under Ted Cottrell and Art Shell, the NFL officials designated to rule on what happens on the field, and not Goodell. It's a Hail Mary hoping that Cottrell or Shell, former players and coaches, would be more lenient.
In other words, the NFLPA is banking on technicalities.
That's technicalities to save players involved in a scandal that hinges on injuring other players and potentially ending their ability to make a living playing football. You know, the stuff you'd think a labor union would care about.
"Essentially, the system arbitration proceeding states that Commissioner Goodell has neither the authority nor the power to issue the punishments to players," the NFLPA statement reads.
Look, this stuff can be complicated, and if the players are free from discipline to any pre-CBA action, then the NFLPA unquestionably can't allow the precedent to stand without a fight. It is right to establish that point.
Of course, the NFL says defensive coordinator Williams and assistant head coach Joe Vitt have admitted the program went into the 2011 season (post CBA ratification) and the league claims there was a bounty on Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, who was rookie last season.
Either way, this isn't a great look for the union.
If it is going to fight on the edges of legalese for a few players, it would be well-served to take a stronger stance on what those players are accused of doing and what the league says – and the union must have agreed – Hargrove admitted engaging in.
It needs to note that the behavior of a few is reprehensible and a threat to the current and post-football health of every player, and that this battle is not to minimize that concern.
"Health and safety is a paramount issue to the NFLPA," the union said in a statement when the Saints bounty scandal first broke, and that's about the strongest language it's officially used.
At the very least, there needs to be more.
Current players are almost always going to brush off the violence in the sport, defend the culture and minimize the potential damage. The ones who disagree will often be shamed into silence. Centuries of human labor have proven individual employees will often take unnecessary risks to earn a living. It doesn't matter if its coal mining or cornerbacking.
That's why unions hire cooler, wiser heads to look out for them. That's the core benefit of organized labor.
The NFL's power in disciplining players for behavior on and off the field has been troubling for years. And an appeals process that requires players to bring their case to the same judge and jury (Goodell) who made the initial ruling runs counter to any fair system of jurisprudence.
That said, the NFLPA agreed to that very system in the CBA. They have only themselves to blame. The agreement is ironclad enough that the union didn't go to court to seek relief against the league. It merely filed a grievance with arbitrator Stephen Burbank, a Penn law school professor.
There is a mountain of evidence that the bounty program was operating in the Saints organization.
None is greater than the fact that Williams, who has been banned from the league indefinitely, admitted it. Payton, who is out a season, has apologized for his role, although he did appeal the severity of his suspension. The Saints organization is not fighting.
There are emails, documents and even a recording of Williams that show the bounty program was at least spoken about moments before games.
Then there is Hargrove's written acknowledgement. The NFL has not made that document public (it should). The NFLPA, however, dropped the biggest development of the day by releasing "Exhibit D" of its grievance case, a May 2 letter from Goodell to Hargrove detailing his punishment. In that letter, Goodell discusses Hargrove's admission and notes, "… on April 17, the NFL Player's Association submitted (the) declaration."
So is the union now claiming that the testimonial it filed on its member's behalf is somehow inaccurate? If it truly wants people to question whether the program existed and believe that the players are innocent, why did it file a letter saying the exact opposite on Hargrove's behalf? If Goodell is mistaken about the contents of Hargrove's statement, why doesn't the union release its copy?
The NFLPA, through its outside counsel, lately has claimed there is no evidence money actually changed hands or that the hits took place. That's a pretty thin defense and doesn't address whether a system was set up. Besides, was there intent? Is it all a lie? Did Cam Newton's leg need to be snapped for it to be wrong?
If the union wants to argue labor procedure, go ahead. It should decry the ugliness of this bounty program at the same time though, and make a clear distinction of what it's fighting about.
There are hills you choose to die on, and defending members who are accused of funding and organizing a system designed to promote injuring other members is a particularly ugly one.
The NFL is easy to paint as the big, bad villain here. Goodell almost always comes off as heavy-handed. It wasn't Goodell who was at risk out on that field, though.
It was other players, other members of the NFLPA.
So, whose welfare is the union looking out for here?
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