The league’s case against the Saints arises in part from an email message from Mike Ornstein in which Ornstein purports to contribute $5,000 to a bounty on Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
The league’s March 21 statement regarding non-player bounty discipline characterized the email as follows: "[P]rior to the Saints’ opening game in 2011, Coach Payton received an email from a close associate that stated in part, ‘PS Greg Williams put me down for $5000 on Rogers [sic].’ When shown the email during the course of the investigation, Coach Payton stated that it referred to a ‘bounty’ on Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers.”
Yes, it referred to a bounty on Rodgers. But now Ornstein, the NFLPA, lawyer Peter Ginsberg (who represents Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma) are taking issue with the league’s broader characterization of the email.
According to the Associated Press, Ornstein claims that the reference to Rodgers, contained in an email sent by Ornstein from prison, was part of a “running joke.” Ornstein said that the subject of bounties had been a topic of periodic kidding in the wake of the Vikings’ claim that a bounty had been placed on Brett Favre in the 2009 NFC title game.
In reality, the Ornstein email wasn’t directly sent to Payton. Instead, it came to team spokesman Greg Bensel, who then forwarded it to the coaching staff with this message: “email from Orny (he asked that I send it) the dude is in prison so I told him I would.”
“When I wrote that email, I was in jail,” Ornstein said. “How was I going to pay for it? In stamps? I’m in federal jail in Florence.”
And so, now that more details are available regarding the Ornstein email, the players’ representative have pushed back.
“Ornstein’s email is just another example of the speciousness of the quote-unquote evidence that Commissioner Goodell claims to have to support his erroneous accusations against Jonathan and the other players,” Ginsberg told the Associated Press. “As more of the evidence is revealed in the media, it is becoming more and more apparent how irresponsible the NFL’s actions have been.”
Richard Smith, hired by the NFLPA to advise players regarding the bounty investigation, also complained about the Ornstein email message. “The NFL has not provided the players with any information like this,” Smith said. “It is unfortunate that they continue to withhold evidence that can show players’ innocence. This email proves what we have feared: what they’ve been selling to the media as evidence doesn’t match up with the truth.”
Between the Anthony Hargrove declaration and the Ornstein email, it’s hard to disagree with Ginsberg and Smith. Unless and until the NFL produces raw evidence that demonstrates player involvement in a bounty program or player funding of payments made to other players for knocking opponents out of games, suspicions will remain that the NFL is embellishing the bounty evidence in order to justify hitting the Saints hard enough to deter all teams, players, and coaches from using bounties in the future.