From Comcast SportsNetNEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Four players embroiled for nearly 10 months in the NFL's bounty investigation of the New Orleans Saints no longer have to worry about suspensions or fines, and can try to move on with their careers on the field.Off the field, the fallout from the dispute could endure for some time, particularly in federal court.In a surprising rejection of his successor's overreaching punishments, former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue threw out "all discipline" current Commissioner Roger Goodell had imposed on two current Saints, linebacker Jonathan Vilma and defensive end Will Smith, and two players no longer with the club, Browns linebacker Scott Fujita and free-agent defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove.Tagliabue, appointed by Goodell to handle player appeals in the matter, essentially absolved Fujita, but agreed with Goodell's finding that the other three players "engaged in conduct detrimental to the integrity of, and public confidence in, the game of professional football."The 22-page ruling Tuesday allowed both sides to claim victory more than nine months after the league first revealed the Saints' bounty scandal to shocked fans, describing a performance pool operated by former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams that, among other things, rewarded hits that injured opponents.The four players punished by Goodell have maintained they were innocent of taking part in bounty program from the beginning, saying they never intended to injure anyone on the field. Vilma even has filed a defamation lawsuit against Goodell in U.S. District Court in Louisiana, and his lawyers, Peter Ginsberg and Duke Williams, said they intend to continue to pursue those claims "vigorously.""Commissioner Tagliabue's rationalization of Commissioner Goodell's actions does nothing to rectify the harm done by the baseless allegations lodged against Jonathan," Vilma's lawyers said a statement. "Jonathan has a right and every intention to pursue proving what really occurred and we look forward to returning to a public forum where the true facts can see the light of day."While no other players have yet filed similar lawsuits, Hargrove's agent, Phil Williams, said this week that "the NFL dragged (Hargrove's) name through the mud and lied about him," costing him an entire season of his career.Hargrove was cut by Green Bay shortly before the regular season. His agent said a number of other teams inquired about signing him, but only after they were confident that bounty matter had been resolved. That has finally happened, as far as the NFL is concerned, but there are only three weeks left in the regular season.Vilma, suspended by Goodell for the entire current season, and Smith, suspended four games, have been playing for the Saints while their appeals were pending. Fujita who was facing a one-game suspension, is on injured reserve. Hargrove's suspension initially stood at eight games but was reduced to seven with credit for his first five games missed as a free agent, essentially reducing the ban he'd been facing to two games.Tagliabue's ruling did nothing to vindicate Saints coaches or the organization. Rather, the former commissioner criticized the Saints as an organization that fostered bad behavior and tried to impede the investigation into what the NFL said was a performance pool designed to knock targeted opponents out of games from 2009 to 2011, with thousands of dollars in payouts.A "culture" that promoted tough talk and cash incentives for hits to injure opponents -- one key example was Vilma's offer of 10,000 to any teammate who knocked Brett Favre out of the NFC championship game at the end of the 2009 season -- existed in New Orleans, according to Tagliabue, who also wrote that "Saints' coaches and managers led a deliberate, unprecedented and effective effort to obstruct the NFL's investigation."The former commissioner did not entirely exonerate the players, however.He said Vilma and Smith participated in a performance pool that rewarded key plays -- including hard tackles -- while Hargrove, following coaches' orders, helped to cover up the program when interviewed by NFL investigators in 2010."My affirmation of Commissioner Goodell's findings could certainly justify the issuance of fines," Tagliabue said in his ruling. "However, this entire case has been contaminated by the coaches and others in the Saints' organization."Tagliabue said he decided, in this particular case, that it was in the best interest of all parties involved to eliminate player punishment because of the enduring acrimony it has caused between the league and the NFL Players Association. He added that he hoped doing so would allow the NFL and union to move forward collaboratively to the more important matters of enhancing player safety."To be clear: this case should not be considered a precedent for whether similar behavior in the future merits player suspensions or fines," his ruling said.Tagliabue oversaw the second round of appeals by players, who initially opposed his appointment.The former commissioner found Goodell's actions historically disproportionate to past punishment of players for similar behavior, which had generally been reserved to fines, not suspensions. He also stated that it was very difficult to determine whether the pledges players made were genuine, or simply motivational ploys, particularly because Saints defenders never demonstrated a pattern of dirty play on the field."The relationship of the discipline for the off-field talk' and actual on-field conduct must be carefully calibrated and reasonably apportioned. This is a standard grounded in common sense and fairness," Tagliabue wrote in his 22-page opinion. "If one were to punish certain off-field talk in locker rooms, meeting rooms, hotel rooms or elsewhere without applying a rigorous standard that separated real threats or bounties' from rhetoric and exaggeration, it would open a field of inquiry that would lead nowhere."Saints quarterback Drew Brees commented on Twitter: "Congratulations to our players for having the suspensions vacated. Unfortunately, there are some things that can never be taken back."The Saints opened the season 0-4 and are now 5-8 and virtually out of the playoffs after appearing in the playoffs the three previous seasons, including the franchise's only Super Bowl title to conclude the 2009 season.Shortly before the regular season, the initial suspensions were thrown out by an appeals panel created by the NFL's collective bargaining agreement. Goodell then reissued them, with some changes, only to have them overturned."We respect Mr. Tagliabue's decision, which underscores the due process afforded players in NFL disciplinary matters," the league said in a statement."The decisions have made clear that the Saints operated a bounty program in violation of league rules for three years, that the program endangered player safety, and that the commissioner has the authority under the (NFL's collective bargaining agreement) to impose discipline for those actions as conduct detrimental to the league. Strong action was taken in this matter to protect player safety and ensure that bounties would be eliminated from football."The players have challenged the NFL's handling of the entire process in federal court, but U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan had been waiting for the latest appeal to play out before deciding whether to get involved. The judge issued an order Tuesday giving the NFLPA and Vilma until Wednesday to notify the court if they found Tagliabue's ruling acceptable.The NFLPA indicated that it was largely satisfied by how the process worked out, so some federal court claims against the NFL could be dropped on Wednesday, even as Vilma's defamation claims remain."We are pleased that Paul Tagliabue, as the appointed hearings officer, agreed with the NFL Players Association that previously issued discipline was inappropriate in the matter of the alleged New Orleans Saints bounty program," the NFLPA said in a statement. "Vacating all discipline affirms the players' unwavering position that all allegations the League made about their alleged intent-to-injure' were utterly and completely false."NFL investigators had concluded that Vilma and Smith were ringleaders of a cash-for-hits program that rewarded injurious tackles labeled as "cart-offs" and "knockouts." Witnesses including Gregg Williams said Vilma made a 10,000 pledge for anyone who knocked Favre out of the NFC title game in January 2010. However, Tagliabue found it was not clear if the pledge was genuine or simply a motivational tactic."There is more than enough evidence to support Commissioner Goodell's findings that Mr. Vilma offered such a bounty" on Favre, Tagliabue wrote. "I cannot, however, uphold a multigame suspension where there is no evidence that a player's speech prior to a game was actually a factor causing misconduct on the playing field and that such misconduct was severe enough in itself to warrant a player suspension or a very substantial fine."The NFL also concluded that Hargrove lied to NFL investigators to help cover up the program. The players have from the beginning denied they ever took the field intending to injure opponents, while Hargrove has said he never lied about a bounty program, because there wasn't one.Goodell suspended Gregg Williams indefinitely, while banning Saints head coach Sean Payton for a full season.Tagliabue's ruling comes after a new round of hearings that for the first time allowed Vilma's attorneys and the NFLPA, which represents the other three players, to cross-examine key NFL witnesses. Those witnesses included Williams and former Saints assistant Mike Cerullo, who was fired after the 2009 season and whose email to the league, accusing the Saints of being "a dirty organization," jump-started the probe.Smith said he was pleased that Tagliabue vacated his suspension."I continue to maintain that I did not participate in a pay-to-injure program or facilitate any such program," he added. "I appreciate that Mr. Tagliabue did not rush to judgment, taking into consideration all facts presented to him, before ruling -- something that was clearly not done by Commissioner Goodell in previous hearings."
GLENDALE, Ariz. — Some teams have it easy, with their 25-man rosters seemingly locked into place before spring training games even start.
The White Sox actually have a lot more locked-down spots than you might think for a rebuilding team, but this spring remains pretty important for a few guys.
The starting rotation figures to be set, with James Shields, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, Miguel Gonzalez and Carson Fulmer the starting five. Carlos Rodon, of course, owns one of those spots once he returns from injury. But the date of that return remains a mystery.
From this observer’s viewpoint, eight of the everyday nine position players seem to be figured out, too: Welington Castillo behind the plate, Jose Abreu at first base, Yoan Moncada at second base, Tim Anderson at shortstop, Yolmer Sanchez at third base, Nicky Delmonico in left field, Avisail Garcia in right field and Matt Davidson as the designated hitter. More on the omission of a starting center fielder in a bit.
Omar Narvaez would be a logical pick to back up Castillo at catcher, and Tyler Saladino is really the lone reserve infielder with big league experience, not to mention he’s a versatile player that can play anywhere on the infield.
Leury Garcia also figures to be a lock for this 25-man roster. But will he be the everyday center fielder, as he was for a spell last season? He played 51 games in center in 2017 but battled injuries throughout the year. I think Leury Garcia will end up the starting center fielder when the season begins because of his bat. His .270/.316/.423 slash line isn’t going to make anyone do cartwheels, but it’s better than the offensive struggles of Adam Engel, who started 91 games in center in 2017 and slashed .166/.235/.282. Engel would still be a solid inclusion on the bench because of his superb defense, but to create that big a hole in the everyday lineup is tough.
How could that position-player group change? Keep your eyes in center field, where there are a couple other guys who could force their way into a roster spot this spring: Charlie Tilson and Ryan Cordell. Tilson has had a tremendous amount of trouble staying on the field since coming over to the White Sox in a 2016 deadline deal, but that hasn’t dampened the White Sox hopes for him. And Cordell got name-dropped by general manager Rick Hahn during SoxFest, when the GM said he’s received multiple calls about Cordell since acquiring him last summer. Cordell put up good numbers at the Triple-A level prior to a significant injury last year.
But the main battles figure to be in the bullpen. At times this winter, as the White Sox kept adding players to that relief corps mix, that the whole thing seemed wide open. But when you think about it, maybe there are only one or two open spots.
You’d have to think these guys are pretty safe bets to make the team: Juan Minaya, Gregory Infante, Nate Jones, Joakim Soria and Luis Avilan. Though Hector Santiago was just recently acquired on a minor league deal, he’s really the only long man of the group, and he could sub in if there’s an injury to a starting pitcher. That leaves two spots between the group of Aaron Bummer, Danny Farquhar, Jace Fry, Jose Ruiz and Thyago Vieira — not to mention guys signed to minor league deals like Xavier Cedeno, Jeanmar Gomez and Bruce Rondon.
Bummer had a 4.50 ERA in 30 big league games last year. Farquhar had a 4.40 ERA in 15 games. Vieira has gotten attention as a flame-thrower, but he’s got just one big league game under his belt, something that might or might not matter to the rebuilding White Sox. Guys like Gomez, who has 40 career saves including 37 just two years ago, and Rondon, who had multiple shots at the Detroit Tigers’ closing job in the past, could vault themselves into the mix as potential midseason trade candidates.
Then there's the question of which of those guys will be Rick Renteria's closer. Minaya had closing duties after most of the bullpen was traded away last summer. He picked up nine saves and posted a 4.11 ERA in his final 17 appearances of the campaign. Look to Soria, though, a veteran with plenty of closing experience from his days with the Kansas City Royals. If he's given the opportunity to close and succeeds, he could fetch an intriguing return package in a potential deadline deal.
But now it's game time in Arizona.
“The fun part of playing the game of baseball is playing the game of baseball," Renteria said earlier this week. "We prepare. I think they all enjoy what they’re doing in terms of their preparation. They take it seriously, they focus. But ultimately like everything that we do in life, I guess it’s a test. And the games are a test for us on a daily basis. And how we are able to evaluate them and take advantage of the opportunities that we have to see them in a real game situation is certainly helpful for us.”
The final 25 games was supposed to be all about the development of the Bulls’ recent acquisitions and securing a record worthy of one of the last three envelopes at the NBA Draft Lottery.
Only Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn seemed to matter, with Cameron Payne and Cristiano Felicio being the perfect window dressing for development as opposed to just saying a team is tanking.
But Bobby Portis is making a case that he isn’t to be forgotten in the big picture, that his worth is more than just being a punchline to the jokes that followed his incident with Nikola Mirotic.
The only thing Portis didn’t do right in the Bulls’ 116-115 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers was missing a point blank shot that would’ve given the Bulls an improbable and unwanted win, and it would’ve given him 40 points.
Instead he had to settle for a career-high 38 as Joel Embiid was bearing down on Portis when he caught a diagonal pass from Dunn with 1.1 seconds left, having the shorter T.J. McConnell on him and taking a power dribble to gather himself.
“If I could go back I would’ve just went up the first time off the glass like I always do,” Portis said. “We just have to try to close out games better.”
Embiid showed he’s worth all the trouble with his health problems, scoring 30 with 13 rebounds and five rebounds while Ben Simmons put up 32 with 11 assists and seven rebounds as the 76ers improved to 31-25, good enough for seventh place in the East.
In a game that featured remarkable resolve from a purposely undermanned Bulls team as they sat Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday, they put themselves in position to win after trailing by 18 early. After leading by five courtesy of a LaVine walk-down triple with 1:02 left, they made a couple critical errors that allowed the 76ers to steal a game the Bulls won’t mind them taking at the end of 82.
Denzel Valentine’s inbounds pass with 5.9 seconds left was intended for LaVine, but Embiid stepped in front for a steal as they were in position to make it a free-throw game the rest of the way.
Similar to the Bulls’ unlikely win over the Orlando Magic before the All-Star break, they returned the favor as 76ers rookie Ben Simmons made free throws after the steal to give the visitors a one-point lead, setting the stage for the final play.
If learning lessons is what the last 100 quarters of basketball is supposed to be about, the Bulls got a big-time lesson in a game that ultimately means nothing.
“These are learning opportunities for our team,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I couldn’t be happier, the way we went out and competed. We dug ourselves an 18-point hold and (fought) our way back—have complete control of the game.”
Control was wrestled from the 76ers by Portis’ able and quick hands. Taking more of a scoring posture since Mirotic’s departure, Portis has never been shy about being aggressive.
But now he’s being encouraged in that department, playing a big part in the Bulls’ tying their franchise record of 18 triples with six of his own, scoring 21 in the first half and not backing down one step from the massive Embiid.
“I kind of struggled from (three) in the last six, seven games,” said Portis, who didn’t take much time off during the All-Star break. “I think I’ve shown this entire year, trying to stay consistent and be a spark off the bench.”
Counting the last two games before the break, Portis has been on the best scoring binge of his career—cementing his place in the league when just a few months ago, many were questioning if the Bulls should’ve actually picked up his player option following the Mirotic incident.
His 25.0 points in the last three, along with scoring in double figures for seven straight games are career-bests. With every flex, every energetic plea to the crowd and resourceful score underneath the rim, Portis is becoming a player the Bulls can’t afford to plan without.
The stage was set for a Portis breakout shortly after the incident, when he was serving his suspension to start the season. When the Bulls traveled to Miami and Orlando, he flew on his own to Orlando for dinner with his mentor, former NBA veteran and Magic assistant coach Corliss Williamson.
Williamson, a player who was not to be trifled with during his career, told Portis essentially, “this too shall pass”.
“Just play your game,” Williamson told NBCSportsChicago.com recently. “Don’t put any pressure on yourself about what’s gonna happen after this year. What’s got him here is hard work, how hard he plays in the game. He continues to do that, he’ll be successful.”
Portis recalled the dinner where he was finally able to confide and unleash after weeks of frustration. Calling Williamson a father figure dating back to their Arkansas roots, where Portis played on Williamson’s AAU teams in middle school, Portis put his trust in him and came back reinvigorated.
“We talked for hours about the whole situation,” Portis told NBCSportsChicago.com “He told me when I come back to come 10 times harder. When people play this game and play the right way, they forget about the other stuff. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Scoring 38 tends to remake a narrative.
“Bobby just continues to improve,” Hoiberg said. “He’s a confident kid that goes out and plays with a ton of swagger and toughness. You need that, to go out and play with that type of effort. He’s tenacious on the glass. He’s getting the crowd into the game.”
When speaking of Portis, Hoiberg’s face went from flush to beaming, knowing how far Portis has come in his three years—being a player who wouldn’t take 3-pointers with confidence to now unleashing them whenever a defender’s feet shows the slightest hint of leaning back.
“Regardless if I’m making shots, I try to leave it all out on the floor,” Portis said. “It felt good making shots, being able to help the team. I wanted the win tonight.”
Portis helped make up for the Bulls not getting their usual production from Dunn, who struggled guarding the bigger Simmons and Lauri Markkanen, who missed all five of his 3-pointers and made just one field goal in 32 minutes.
“You can put he and Lauri together,” Hoiberg said. “It gives you two guys that can stretch the floor and space it, two guys that can rebound, two that can put it on the floor. It’s exciting to think about when Kris gets his rhythm back.”
And now, Williamson’s words have proven to be prophetic for his pupil, because if the Bulls aren’t seeing Portis as a key part of their future, there’s about 25 other teams who’ll be lining up for his services this summer.
“I told him don’t even worry about it,” Williamson said. “Let your game speak for itself. People who really know you, know what type of person you are. You start producing people will forget about it and love you for what you do on the court.”
His game is talking, even if the Bulls’ loss was one they’d rather have taken in silence.