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Hargrove says Williams, Vitt told him to “just play dumb”


Last week, I vowed to get my eyes on the declaration from Anthony Hargrove, which had been submitted by the NFLPA to the NFL in connection with the bounty investigation. It took some time and a little more effort than I’m accustomed to exerting (i.e., any), but I finally got it.

The declaration is significant both for what it says, and for what it doesn’t say.

As to what it says, Hargrove contends that defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and assistant head coach/linebackers coach Joe Vitt both told Hargrove to “just play dumb” about the existence of a bounty program when questioned by NFL Security in 2010, when the league initially investigated the situation.

Hargrove contends that Williams first raised the situation in a one-on-one meeting. Williams first told Hargrove that he would be “plugged in at left end” for 2010, Hargrove’s preferred position. Hargrove claims that he later realized Williams’ suggestion “might have had something to do” with Williams’ subsequent instructions regarding the bounty investigation, and that Hargrove eventually was “never given the opportunity to compete for the starting left defensive end job.”

Williams then told Hargrove that the NFL was coming to investigate a complaint that the Saints had placed a “bounty” on Vikings quarterback Brett Favre prior to the 2009 NFC title game. Williams explained that some people believed Hargrove had told Vikings defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy about the existence of the bounty, given that they previously played together with the Rams.

Williams said he was going to deny the existence of a bounty, and that Hargrove should deny it, too. Per Hargrove, Williams said, “Those motherf-ckers [the NFL] have been trying to get me for years,” and that, if they “stay on the same page, this will blow over.”

Vitt, per Hargrove, also said to deny the existence of the bounty program, and to remember that Vitt “brought [Hargrove] into the League and brought [Hargrove] to the Saints.”

Hargrove says that, when meeting with NFL Security he “denied all knowledge of a bounty or bounty program.” Roughly a week later, Williams asked Hargrove if he stuck to the story. Hargrove said he responded in the way Williams and Vitt had instructed -- Hargrove denied any knowledge of a bounty program.

Now for what Hargrove’s declaration doesn’t say. At no point in the declaration does Hargrove admit to any knowledge of the existence of a bounty program. Indeed, at no point does Hargrove claim that he was told to say anything different from what he would have otherwise said, without coaching.

In other words, Hargrove never says he was told to lie. Instead, he says he was told what to say, without commenting on whether he believed what he was told to say to be the truth.

And so, when the NFL said last week in the announcement of the suspensions of Hargrove and three other players that the declaration “established not only the existence of the program with the Saints, but also that he knew about and participated in it,” that statement was blatantly incorrect. And when “independent” counsel Mary Jo White explained in a conference call last week that the “thrust” of the declaration was Hargrove’s acknowledgment of “the nature of the program and his participation in it,” that was blatantly incorrect, too.

It may simply be semantics, given that Williams and Vitt apparently confessed to the existence of a bounty program -- which necessarily means that Hargrove had lied. But in his declaration he never says that he lied, and he never admits that the bounty program existed.

The flaw in the NFL’s comments about the Hargrove declaration is subtle, but significant. The plain language of the Hargrove declaration as compared to the NFL’s characterization of it shows that the league is playing a little fast and loose with the facts. Which makes it even more critical that the league stop spoon-feeding the NFLPA and the media characterizations and summaries and conclusions, and that it start coughing up the raw data on which the characterizations and summaries and conclusions were based.

Back when I was practicing law, I’d periodically explain to a jury that, upon encountering a piece of rancid meat in a pot of beef stew, the reaction isn’t to keep eating but to dump it all out. Though the league’s mischaracterization of Hargrove’s declaration may not justify ignoring the full weight of the bounty evidence, it means that, at a minimum, someone must have an opportunity to scrutinize all facts, apart from the skewed, self-serving filter the league has applied when talking about the case.