June 26, 2016

Partly sunny

Fujita’s suspension reduced to one game


Scott Petrak

The Gazette

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell conceded to Browns linebacker Scott Fujita’s insistence that he didn’t contribute to the alleged bounty pool of the New Orleans Saints in 2009. But Goodell determined Fujita was aware of the system and should’ve tried to stop it.

Goodell reduced Fujita’s suspension from three games to one Tuesday. They met in New York on Sept. 28 to discuss the case for the first time.

Fujita has a three-day window to decide if he will appeal, and can continue to practice. If he accepts the punishment, he would miss the game Sunday against the Bengals.

“While I have not found that you directly contributed to the bounty pool, there is no serious question that you were aware of the pool and its elements, including that it provided rewards for cart-offs,” Goodell wrote in a letter to Fujita, adding Saints teammate Jonathan Vilma said Fujita supported and endorsed it. “Your own comments confirm that players were encouraged to ‘crank up the John Deere tractor and cart those guys off’ the playing field.

“I am surprised and disappointed by the fact that you, a former defensive captain and a passionate advocate for player safety, ignored such a program and permitted it to continue.”

Fujita didn’t respond to messages left Tuesday night.

Goodell upheld the suspensions of Vilma and Will Smith and reduced Anthony Hargrove’s from eight games to seven. The NFL Players Association has been fighting the discipline since it was first announced and didn’t concede anything Tuesday.

“For more than six months, the NFL has ignored the facts, abused the process outlined in our collective bargaining agreement and failed to produce evidence that the players intended to injure anyone, ever,” the union’s statement said. “The only evidence that exists is the League’s gross violation of fair due process, transparency and impartiality during this process. Truth and fairness have been the casualties of the league’s refusal to admit that it might have made a mistake.

“We will review this decision thoroughly and review all options to protect our players’ rights with vigilance.”

Any appeal would be heard by Goodell, as stipulated in the collective bargaining agreement. The union could also choose to go back to court.

Fujita’s suspension was always the shortest of the four players disciplined.

“You made clear to me that participation in the program was voluntary and that other players could have refused to participate, as you claim to have done,” Goodell wrote. “If you had spoken up, perhaps other players would have refused to participate and the consequences with which we are now dealing could have been avoided.”

Fujita is a member of the union’s executive committee and has been outspoken for improvements in player safety. He has cited his personal history as the reason he wouldn’t participate in a bounty program.

Goodell declared that wasn’t enough.

“I believe that everyone in the NFL, including players, has an obligation to promote fair and safe play, and to protect the integrity of the game,” he wrote. “Your failure to act contributed to allowing this program to remain in place not only during the 2009 season, but for two additional seasons after that.”

Fujita, who joined the Browns in 2010, has acknowledged paying Saints teammates directly for big plays in wins, such as sacks or forced fumbles, which is a violation of league rules. Goodell sought to make it clear the punishments weren’t for violating the salary cap.

The appeals panel that temporarily vacated the suspensions sent the case back to Goodell on Sept. 7 because it wasn’t sure. Goodell’s jurisdiction doesn’t include the salary cap.

“The discipline being imposed today is entirely based on my finding that the players engaged in conduct detrimental, and in no way based on any issue of undisclosed payments in violation of the salary cap,” he wrote.

Because the appeals panel temporarily stopped the discipline, Fujita was eligible to play in the opener. But he hadn’t practiced and the Browns didn’t activate him until the second week. The missed first week doesn’t count as the suspension.

A one-game suspension would cost Fujita $214,705, compared to $644,000 for three games. His salary is $3.65 million.

Rookies James-Michael Johnson or L.J. Fort would replace Fujita as the starting strongside linebacker if he accepts the suspension.

In a memo to the teams, Goodell reiterated the collective bargaining agreement of 2011 allows him to administer discipline for conduct detrimental to the league.

“The quality, specificity and scope of the evidence supporting the findings of conduct detrimental are far greater and more extensive than ordinarily available in such cases,” he wrote. “In recent meetings, the players confirmed many of the key facts disclosed in our investigation, most particularly that the program offered cash rewards for ‘cart-offs,’ that players were encouraged to ‘crank up the John Deere tractor’ and have their opponents carted off the field, and that rewards were offered and paid for plays that resulted in opposing players having to leave the field of play.”

Profootballtalk.com speculated Fujita’s suspension was reduced in the hour before it was announced.

Contact Scott Petrak at (440) 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.