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NFL player sees bounty probe as a 'smear campaign'

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NFL player sees bounty probe as a 'smear campaign'

From Comcast SportsNet
NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita, a union leader with a record of criticizing the NFL's player-safety record, sees elements of a "smear campaign" in a bounty investigation that has sullied his reputation. Some NFL players agree, and question whether Fujita's three-game suspension has something to do with retribution. "I'm not saying the NFL is intentionally lying," Fujita said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I've been willing to give them the benefit of the doubt that they may have just been working with the information they've been given, even though much of that information was inaccurate and lacked credibility. "It's their cavalier interpretation of everything that's been way off. They clearly proceeded with a public smear campaign with very little regard for the truth." NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell could rule on the appeals of Fujita and the other players suspended because of their roles in the bounty program as early as Monday. Saints linebacker Scott Shanle finds it hard to ignore the symmetry of the NFL portraying Fujita as a hypocrite on player-safety matters after Fujita had done the same thing to the league. "When you look at Scott, who was here for one season (of the three spanned by the bounty probe), for him to get three games, I just felt like there had to be more of a personal issue with that," Shanle said. "When you look at how outspoken he is and a lot of the issues he tries to address, it probably doesn't sit well with the league." NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the NFL stands by its finding that Fujita gave "more than token amounts" of money to a pool that also rewarded injury-producing hits called "cart-offs" and "knockouts." "The process gave all of the players every opportunity to raise arguments and provide any mitigating information," Aiello said. "Scott Fujita unfortunately chose not to avail himself of the process. Nothing that he has asserted in his various public statements undermines the findings of the investigation." Fujita, who now plays for Cleveland, was one of four current or former Saints suspended in the bounty probe. Two of them, Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith, still play for New Orleans. The other, Green Bay defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, left New Orleans after 2010, while Fujita left after 2009, the first season covered by the investigation. In 2010, Fujita became a member of the NFLPA executive committee, and has since echoed comments by Congresswoman Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) comparing the NFL's 2009 position on concussions' links to brain disease to the way the tobacco industry denied knowledge that smoking caused cancer. Fujita argued Goodell undermined his own credibility on player-safety matters when he pushed for an 18-game regular season. He called for the NFL to employ independent neurological consultants after Browns quarterback Colt McCoy was knocked out of a game, but allowed to return, despite later being diagnosed with a concussion. Browns players say Fujita challenged Goodell's answers to a range of questions including how a lockout would affect players' health coverage when the commissioner visited the team in 2010. "Scott wasn't scared to ask the tough questions that some of us wouldn't or some of us didn't even know to ask," Browns tight end Benjamin Watson said. "Scott wanted to make sure the commissioner owned up to all that stuff and ... you could tell that Mr. Goodell wasn't comfortable answering some of those questions." Former Browns linebacker Eric Barton added, "Most people in the room were like, this guy (the commissioner) is full of it and Scott just called him out, and it was almost like, Oh, Scott, you're going to be in trouble.'" After seeing evidence the NFL presented against him in last week's appeal hearing on the four players' suspensions, Fujita has more questions: -- Why has the NFL linked him to bounties in its public statements, while its disciplinary letter announcing his suspension acknowledges there is no evidence he "pledged money toward a specific bounty" on a particular player? -- Why does that same letter state he was a member of the Saints in the 2010 season, when he was with Cleveland? And what does that say about the quality of the investigation? -- If the investigation was going on for parts of three years, why did no one contact him before the league's first report in March? -- Why did Goodell twice call his personal phone after union attorneys notified the NFL they were representing Fujita, meaning Goodell was not supposed to call him without an NFLPA attorney on the line? Aiello responded that while the NFL never accused Fujita of targeting a specific opponent, his discipline letter clearly stated "that he contributed a significant sum to the general pool that included payments for nonspecific bounties in the form of cart-offs' and knockouts.'" Fujita was not contacted about the probe earlier, Aiello said, because the league was unable to identify specific players and their roles in the program until late in 2011. "Every individual that was eventually disciplined was invited to speak to our office prior to any decision on discipline," Aiello said. "None of the players, including Mr. Fujita, agreed to be interviewed during the process." Aiello added that Goodell's calls to Fujita were in response to calls Fujita had placed to Goodell, but the NFLPA said Goodell should not have been making personal calls to players facing punishment at that point. "It's inappropriate. It is completely outside legal conduct rules," NFLPA lawyer Heather McPhee said. "You cannot directly contact a represented party when you know a party's represented and it's especially odd in this case when Roger purports to be the judge. Picture a judge getting on the phone with a defendant or a suspect." After the second call, McPhee emailed NFL counsel Jeff Pash and Goodell, saying Fujita would be happy to talk with Goodell with counsel present, but there was no further communication, and Fujita learned days later he'd been suspended. Fujita said his only chance to speak with Goodell directly came in early March after the release of the initial bounty report, which did not identify players, although Fujita's name had been leaked. Fujita said he called Goodell to explain locker room culture as it relates to tough talk and informal performance incentives, and how it could be misconstrued. He said Goodell told him then that "he would have no problem coming down hard on Saints coaches, but that when it comes to players, he's not quite sure what he's got." Fujita acknowledges he offered teammates cash for big plays, mainly because "that's the way it was done when I was a young player and I kind of looked at that as paying it forward." But Fujita contends he never contributed to team-organized pools, instead paying pledges directly to teammates. The NFL's current collective bargaining agreement applies only to pools organized by team officials, like the one former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has apologized for running. According to a transcript AP obtained from the appeal hearing, NFL outside counsel Mary Jo White described an unnamed coach and another witness saying Fujita pledged unspecified sums of cash for "big plays" during the 2009-10 playoffs. The NFL also presented printed reproductions of handwritten notes, which White said show Fujita pledging 1,000 to a pool for sacks and forced fumbles during the regular season, and 2,000 during the playoffs to a "general pool," which she said in part paid for injury-inducing plays. The note indicated safety Roman Harper, who was not punished, pledged 5,000 to the general pool, and that assistant head coach Joe Vitt pledged 5,000 to knock then-Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre out of the NFC title game. Hoping to protect those who helped their investigation, the NFL did not present the original notes or identify who wrote them. "We don't know who wrote the note. We haven't seen original, and the fact that Joe Vitt's name is on it proves how bogus it is," Fujita said. "No way he ever contributed not even 100 for anything. It's not his style." Vitt has said the part of the document showing his pledge is false, which he said raises questions about all of the evidence. However the bounty saga winds up, Fujita said he has no regrets about his aggressive tactics as a union leader. "I've had a few concussions myself. I have a dear friend (former Saints player Steve Gleason) who has ALS. I have a friend and former mentor (Lew Bush) who died earlier this year. Then there was the tragic death of someone I've admired for so long, Junior Seau," Fujita said. "I can't say for sure that all of these things happened because of football, but I've seen enough to have some concerns. I was elected to fight for these men, so in no way do I regret that."

Guy drops 29 points in Virginia's win over VCU

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Guy drops 29 points in Virginia's win over VCU

Kyle Guy scored 29 points and hit two 3-pointers in the final three minutes Friday, leading Virginia to a 76-67 victory against VCU.

Ty Jerome also hit from long range in the closing minutes and Virginia (3-0) saw its lead trimmed to three at 63-60 with five minutes left. Neither team scored for the next two minutes before Guy came off a screen right in front of the Cavaliers' and doubled their lead.

Issac Vann made it 66-62 with a driving basket for VCU (2-1), but Guy hit a pair of free throws and Jerome followed with a 3-pointer.

RELATED: DMV COLLEGE BASKETBALL POWER RANKINGS

Jerome added 13 points and seven assists for Virginia.

Vann led VCU with 19 points, Johnny Williams had 14 and Khris Lane 12.

THE BIG PICTURE

Virginia: The Cavaliers had little trouble with VCU's pressure, turning the ball over just five times and outscoring the Rams 12-5 off turnovers. They also outscored the Rams 18-0 on fast break points, but they were beaten on the backboards 36-26.

VCU: The Rams averaged 94.5 points in their first two games, but are still working to integrate what first-year coach Mike Rhoades wants them to do on offense and defense. Johnny Williams can be a force driving to the basket, and transfer Vann gives them another quality 3-point shooter.

UP NEXT

Virginia is at home on Sunday against Monmouth.

VCU faces Marquette in the Maui Invitational on Monday.

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First quarter grades: 20 games into the season, how do the Caps look?

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USA TODAY Sports

First quarter grades: 20 games into the season, how do the Caps look?

The Capitals have hit the quarter mark of their season with 20 games under their belts. The last two games put a sour taste on the first quarter, but overall how have they looked?

Let's harken back to our school days when the first quarter of the year brought about the first report card and hand out some grades.

(Note: I don't grade coaching. How a team performs in every area is a reflection of the coaching so all of these grades can be considered "coaching" grades)

Offense: C

By the numbers: Washington ranks 21st in the NHL with 2.80 goals per game (one spot ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins interestingly enough)

Consistency is the biggest problem for the Caps offensively. First, they were too top heavy with Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie carrying the load by themselves with no secondary scoring. Since then, the top players have struggled to produce, especially Backstrom. Backstrom is being utilized more as a shutdown forward, but the Capitals need him to produce as well in order to be successful, especially when he is playing on a line with Oshie. The Caps need consistent scoring from their top players and consistent secondary production. The good news is that Ovechkin looks as good as ever with 13 goals already. After scoring 33 last season, many wondered if his days of being a top scoring threat were over. That does not appear to be the case. 

I would be remiss if I did not include one note on Kuznetsov: Please, please shoot the puck.

RELATED: 4 REASONS WHY THE CAPS LOST TO COLORADO

Defense: C

By the numbers: Washington ranks 24th in the NHL with 3.25 goals against per game

I can already hear your bewildered screams and angry questions. "How does a team that ranks 24th in the NHL get a C grade?" Let's take a step back and look at the players who have been playing. This is not the same defense from last season. Matt Niskanen, the team's best all-around defenseman, missed 13 games. The 37-year-old Brooks Orpik, who was a third-pair defenseman last season, is third on the team in average time on ice with 22:17 per game. Rookies Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey have played 16 and 14 games respectively. With all of that in mind, it's no surprise that the defense has struggled. All things considered, the defense has not been good, but it has not been terrible either. You cannot allow 3.25 goals per game all season and hope to be a contender which is why they get a C, but with continued improvement from the rookies and Niskanen's return, the blue line should certainly improve throughout the season.

Goaltending: A-

By the numbers:
Braden Holtby:  .918 save percentage, 2.68 GAA ,10-4-0
Philipp Grubauer .876 save percentage, 3.86 GAA, 0-5-1

Holtby has been phenomenal and there is no question that he has stolen a good number of those 10 wins with this performance. He gets high marks for that. Grubauer's numbers are not good, but for anyone who has been watching this team, it is hard to fault him for any of those losses. He is not getting much support from his teammates when he steps into the crease. Starting goalies, however, need to be able to steal some wins. Grubauer wants to be a starter, so the fact that he has been unable to steal a win knocks the grade down to an A-, but overall, you cannot convince me goaltending has been an issue for the Caps this season.

Special Teams: C-

By the numbers:
Power play: Washington ranks 15th in the NHL at 19.4-percent
Penalty kill: Washington ranks 27th in the NHL at 77.8-percent

Let's start with the penalty kill. The bottom line is that it has not been good enough this season. The silver lining is that while the numbers are bad, they play much better in critical moments when the game is on the line. We saw that in the third period of the team's wins over the Islanders and the Coyotes. Overall, the PK has not been good enough, but when it really matters they step up which means there is some hope for improvement. The power play numbers are average, but here are the players who have scored on the power play this season: Oshie, Ovechkin, Carlson, Backstrom, Kuznetsov. See a pattern? They are all top-unit players. Barry Trotz has not been using his top unit for 1:30-1:45 as we've seen in previous years. He is giving much more time to his second unit. If you do that, they have to produce and they just have not been up to the task this season.

First Quarter Team MVP

1. Braden Holtby

As mentioned above, Holtby has 10 wins and he was the team's best player in most of those games. The fact that Washington does not have a single win without him shows just how important he is. He gives the team a measure of confidence that they do not have with Grubauer. Not only has he played great, but the entire team also seems to play better around him.

2. John Carlson

This team asked a lot of Carlson this season when Niskanen went on LTIR and Carlson delivered. He is second in the entire NHL in time on ice with 27:07 per game, just two seconds from the leader Rasmus Ristolainen. His play has not suffered as a result of the increased minutes. In fact, he has gotten better and better and the season progressed.

3. Alex Ovechkin

Whether Ovechkin is declining is a question we seem to ask every year. We should know better by now. The man is inhuman. His 13 goals may not lead the league, but it still puts him among the elite scorers of the NHL. Yes, I am not blind to the fact that he scored seven of those goals in two games and has only six in the last 18, but, call me crazy, I still consider seven goals in two games to be a pretty darn good sign of his scoring abilities.

MORE CAPITALS: LISTEN TO THE CAPITALS EXTRA PODCAST ON THE LOSS TO COLORADO

Overall grade: B-

Let's remember who is under the microscope here. This is not a grade for Washington's 2016-17 roster. If it was, it would be closer to a D or F. That roster was too talented to struggle the way this team has, but that was last year. If I were to tell you before the season that this team with its current roster would be 10-9-1 and in playoff position through 20 games with Niskanen missing 13 games, Andre Burakovsky missing 11, Brett Connolly missing seven and Tom Wilson suspended for four, are you telling me you would not have taken that? I would have. The last two losses are a concern for sure and you could argue that the team is trending downward, but overall they have done well to get to where they are now. They must improve in a number of areas over the course of the next 20 games, but 10-9-1 with the injuries they have faced is not too bad at all.