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Evidence against Fujita shows that bounty case is all about semantics

Drew Brees, Scott Fujita

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) is sacked by Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita (99) during the first quarter of an NFL football game at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, Sunday, Oct. 24, 2010. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)


Lost in the debate regarding whether Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma offered a $10,000 bounty on Brett Favre prior to the 2009 NFC title game and whether former Saints defensive end Anthony Hargrove said, “Bobby, give me my money” after it appeared Favre had been knocked out of the 2009 NFC title game is the fact that former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita faces no specific allegation that he contributed to the alleged bounty on Favre -- or to any specific bounty on any specific player.

Instead, the bounty case against Fujita consists of two claims: that he contributed money for the pool that paid players for sacks and forced fumbles (which necessarily isn’t and can’t be a “bounty”), and that he contributed $2,000 to the “general” pay-for-performance pool prior to the 2009 NFC title game.

(The latter comes from the same notes that the NFL regarded as sufficiently unreliable to result in Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt even being asked about whether he contributed $5,000 to the alleged bounty on Favre. But those same notes nevertheless have fueled Fujita’s punishment.)

So why has Fujita been suspended three games to start the 2012 regular season?

The answer comes from the league’s focus on the payment of cash for big, clean, legal hits that caused a player to leave, for part of the game (clumsily dubbed a “cart-off” by the Saints) or for the rest of the game (less clumsily labeled a “knockout”). That’s why the NFL seized so aggressively upon Mike Triplett’s recent interview with Saints linebacker Scott Shanle, who as Triplett writes “admitted some wrongdoing on the Saints’ part, including the existence of rewards for legal hits that led to injuries and terms such as ‘cart-offs’ and ‘knockouts.’”

And so the league’s case against the players amounts to a contention that the pay-for-performance program included payments for big, clean, legal hits that caused a player to exit the field, whether for one or more plays or the rest of the game. The problem with the league’s logic is that, even without the extra cash, professional football players (especially defensive players) already are paid to deliver big, clean, legal hits. The goal in delivering big, clean, legal hits is to break the opponent’s will or, at a minimum, get him thinking not about doing his own job, but about avoiding another big, clean, legal hit.

An unspoken (usually) goal of delivering big ,clean, legal hits is to make opposing players unavailable to play. As long as the big hit is clean and legal, there’s no rule (yet) against trying to hit a player so hard that he can’t keep playing.

Perhaps that’s why the NFL has felt compelled to make its case seem stronger than it is, and to make the Saints’ behavior seem more sinister than it was. By painting a picture of players who were looking to go beyond the rules to inflict injuries, the league successfully has glossed over the philosophical question of whether a player who already is paid to deliver big, clean, legal hits should be punished for receiving a little extra pay to (wait for it) deliver big, clean, legal hits.

It’s not that the Saints were trying to injure players. It’s that the Saints were offering extra money for big, clean, legal hits that advanced the pre-existing objective of victory through attrition, a concept that has been part of the game since the game was invented.

This inconsistency first surfaced when comparing the huge gap between Gregg Williams’ cartoonish remarks the night before the January 2012 playoff game against the 49ers and the absence of any extracurricular hits or stomps or knee-whackings or conduct other than big, clean, legal hits. (Of course, most of the big, clean, legal hits applied in that game were applied to members of the Saints.) But the distinction between talk and action largely has been lost in the stream of flawed evidence leaked and/or published by the league.

So instead of debating whether it’s fair and just to dub as a “bounty” program money paid to a player for doing the job he already is paid to do, much of the debate has centered the accuracy and credibility of the league’s interpretation of items like: the Anthony Hargrove declaration; the Mike Ornstein email of September 2011; the bounty ledger that was summarized for Jason Cole of Yahoo! Sports; the specific proof that Jonathan Vilma offered a $10,000 bounty on Brett Favre; and the question of whether sideline video from the 2009 NFC title game actually proves that Hargrove said, “Bobby, give me my money.”

Maybe that’s precisely what the league has wanted. Maybe the league hopes to avoid a full-blown debate on what’s really going on here. Players were paid extra money for doing the jobs they already were paid to do. Absent proof linking the pooled cash to dirty or illegal hits aimed at inflicting injury, the Saints did nothing between the white lines that any other team ever sets out to do. Instead, some members of the Saints simply got a little extra money for doing what they already were supposed to do.